AMERICA’S PRISON DELUSION –Why Prison Doesn’t Offer Restoration for Citizens Who Need it Most

“The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.”
-Bruce Feirstein.

This quote, in my simple mind, seems to reason that insanity measured alone, results in failure every time. Trust me, as someone who’s had his head smashed into the hood of a car by over zealous undercover cops, I know this to be true. I have also learned first-hand that Feirstein’s assessment of insanity applies to prisons in America. Where is the success?

America’s prisons are set up to punish offenders by degrading, humiliating, and emasculating the inmates they confine and control. This kind of dehumanization takes place only by exposing inmates to conditions that violate their basic human rights and strip them of their self-esteem.

For example, something as clear-cut as placing two or three men in a cell designed for one person can violate an inmate’s human rights and be categorized as cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine for a moment, you are locked in your cell lying on your bunk—which is strategically positioned next to the commode—when suddenly, Tiny jumps down from the top bunk and pops a squat on the toilet bowl next to your head. And yet, that’s the least of your problems in prison!

In prison, human rights violations include poor living conditions, extended periods of isolation, violent assaults by inmates, torture by guards, sexual assaults and rape by other inmates and even guards. Most people would be shocked to learn that when you add the prison population to the statistics of sexual assault, more men are sexually assaulted in America than women!

Adding to prison’s problems are illiteracy and poor social and emotional health. Seventy-five percent of inmates are high school drop-outs, and many are illiterate. While education must be a crucial component in the battle against poverty and crime, it is not, however, the be-all, end-all solution so many believe it is.

Even if we educated and equipped every inmate with a college degree but failed to engage the critical condition of their social and emotional health, I believe there would still be very little change in the rates of criminal behavior and recidivism in America. We would simply have inmates who hold college degrees, but still struggle with the never-ending consequences of poor social and emotional health.

After I left prison in 1986, serving three years of a seven-year bid for extortion, I began restoring homes and have earned a living at it ever since. Restoring a home is a bit more complicated than building a new one because I can’t build anything new until I have removed all the rot and decay from the existing structure. It would make no sense to install new materials over materials that have been rotting and decaying for years because the new installations would become corrupted by the old materials.

When it comes to restoring a life, it’s no different. An inmate’s life is often times filled with the rot and decay of social and emotional injury that, like a house, accumulate over many years. Completing a drug program, acquiring a G.E.D., or learning a trade skill in prison could lead to lasting change, but if they’re added without addressing social and emotional injuries, it’s like building on a rotting foundation.

As I wrote in my memoir How’s It Feel, Tough Guy?, my victim status as a child was directly related to my offender status as an adult. Until I removed the rot and decay of my own life, I wouldn’t be able to build something new and strong. Time would prove that neither an education nor a desire to live my life responsibly could overcome the unaddressed, unhealthy, social and emotional inadequacies that led to my confinement in the first place. To genuinely restore lives within America’s prisons, we must adopt an approach to reform that ends the dehumanization of inmates and embraces the challenges of meeting the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of inmates whose victim status more often than not led to their offender status.  Anything less amounts to painting over a crumbling foundation and hoping for the best.



Part 1 The Delusion

America is a nation populated by approximately 325 million people who make up just under 5 percent of the 7 billion people living on the planet earth today. Despite our flaws, America is, and has always been, a beacon of light throughout much of the world. We have consistently led the way on many fronts, not the least of which is showing concern and compassion for those suffering around the world. Today however, our example to others around the world seems to be missing right here at home when showing concern and having compassion relates to one particular group of people; Inmates! While America accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, our prison population of 2.2 million inmates accounts for approximately 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

For decades America’s leaders and law makers have been operating under the delusion that the answer to squashing the escalation of criminal behavior in our culture surrounds harsher punishment, longer sentences, and using approaches to punishment that nurture the broken spirit, and hopeless dispositions of the men and women serving time in our prisons. “This false belief among leaders and lawmakers has been firmly maintained in spite of incontrovertible and obvious proof to the contrary.” This is the medical definition of Delusion!

My opinion regarding “America’s Prison Delusion” comes from the perspective of having spent time in prison and from having been subjected to such an approach to Punishment/Reform. I should be clear that I FULLY support law and order and the need to not only punish criminal behavior, but to deter criminal behavior from happening in the future. I will also concede, my criminal behavior was such that it required a Judge to hold me accountable for my actions in the form of a prison sentence. Finally, I believe that any person whose behavior threatens the safety and security of law abiding citizens should lose their freedom until which time it can be reasonably guaranteed such a person no longer presents a threat. In fact, it seems that I agree with almost everything we do as a nation to enforce the laws of our land and to guarantee its citizens their right to live free, in peace, and without the threat of harm from others. At least I agree right up until the prison door closes and the delusion of confronting criminal behavior by applying longer sentences and harsher punishments begins.

The basis of my indictment concerning the failure of America’s prisons and prison policies fall not only on my personal experiences inside of prison, (which some may dismiss as biased) but equally upon the unbiased statistics surrounding, higher arrest rates, higher rates of convictions including non custodial sentences, and perhaps the most telling statistics of all, the statistics surrounding recidivism among parolees. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) show nearly 80 percent of all people released from prison return to prison, many of them return within the first year. Click Here for Link  I am not suggesting there is an easy solution to the problem of mass incarceration in America, if that were the case, we could simply Xerox the solution to the problem and hand it out. What I am suggesting however, is there is an apparent lack of urgency on the part of the leaders of this nation to begin to remedy what is so obvious to so many others.

The issue of mass incarceration in our nation is not a Black problem, nor a White problem, nor or a Spanish problem. Mass incarceration in the United States is a HUMAN problem and needs to be addressed in exactly that way if we are ever going to solve the problem. NO society, or persons within a society, should be empowered to have control over, or profit by their control over other human beings who may be vulnerable, susceptible, or have a propensity to come under the control of those making a profit by providing the service of controlling them. It is my position that Prisons for Profit, combined with the privatization of goods and services supplied to prisons for profit  by outside vendors, crosses a line whereby housing inmates becomes more about making a profit than about carrying out justice or affecting positive change in the lives of inmates. This for profit exploitation of inmate lives constitutes a “TYPE” of Human Trafficking as I understand the United Nations definition of Human Trafficking and should be defined as such until which time our approach to prisons and reform changes. Click Here for Link

Again, this is a HUMAN issue and an AMERICAN OUTRAGE as it relates not only to Prisons for Profit, but also as it relates to the persistence of our leaders and policy makers who continue to invest the financial resources of the American tax payer to pay for failure. Incarceration in America has become a profitable and lucrative industry whereby too many civilians are able to profit at the expense of society’s most vulnerable members including those from low income families, minority groups, and those being treated for mental health issues, to name a few.

In the world of recovery, we call doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, insanity! It is time for our nation’s leaders to sober up regarding the issue of mass incarceration and prison reform. It is time for our leaders to step out of denial and away from the delusion that longer sentences and harsher punishment is going to change anything. We need to call mass incarceration what it has become… a “TYPE” of Human Trafficking! It’s time for a new approach to the way we deal with crime and punishment in this nation. In Part 2 of  America’s Prison Delusion I will discuss why I believe the system has failed inmates and tax payers alike.