Two steps if taken, however, would almost halve our prison population. First, repeal state laws that now mandate the incarceration of drug offenders and develop instead many more public and private treatment centers to which nonviolent drug abusers can be referred. Second, stop using jails or prisons to house the mentally ill.
Tougher sentencing is being justified, in part, by the widespread belief that incarceration is the chief reason violent crime declined in U.S. cities during the 1990s. Rehabilitation is out; retribution is in. An ounce of prevention has given way to a pound of punishment. Furthermore, serious urban crime may be going down but the publicity about it in the mass media has not.
The largest single group in local jails comprises those incarcerated, directly or indirectly, because of alcohol, crack cocaine, marijuana, or heroin use. This situation testifies to the reality that not only is our national campaign against drug abuse failing, but that, as the U.S. Department of Justice reports, seven out of ten inmates now in state or federal prisons are there for drug abuse and other nonviolent offenses. We treat nonviolent drug offenders as criminals when they should be patients. Nationwide, women prisoners have more than doubled since 1990, mainly for drug-related offenses. In New York State, 80% of the women incarcerated were mothers with children. And the number of juveniles under the age of eighteen in adult prisons continues to grow.
Because of the serious shortage of public and private living quarters for the mentally ill, city and county jails have become the local "hospitals" and caretakers. Schizophrenics and persons with a bipolar disorder are more likely to be arrested for conduct related to their ailments. In dozens of U.S. cities, the largest institution for sheltering them is now the local jail.
Some fifteen states have eliminated parole boards, and those that retain them have become reluctant to grant paroles. As might be expected in an environment where rehabilitation is underemphasized and underfunded, the number of former inmates who return to prison for parole violations keeps growing.
Recently, several states, including New York, Illinois, and California, have actively sought to develop ways to send fewer nonviolent offenders to prison, hoping to refer them to treatment centers instead. Were this incipient trend to become widespread, the number of prisoners nationwide would plummet. But progress is slow because most states have a serious shortage of needed mental hospitals and treatment centers. Drug addiction is undeniably the nation's foremost health problem. It should be treated as such. Prisons are for criminals.
Inmates need education programs that not only teach them how to read effectively but also provide the necessary reinforcement that helps promote a positive transition to society when they are released. Perhaps these efforts will help stimulate better participation of inmates not only in literacy programs, but also in the adult basic education, vocational and college level programs. Certainly, these efforts could go a long way toward helping the prisoner rehabilitation process.
Since 1990, the literature has shown that prisoners who attend educational programs while they are incarcerated are less likely to return to prison following their release. Studies in several states have indicated that recidivism rates have declined where inmates have received an appropriate education. Furthermore, the right kind of educational program leads to less violence by inmates involved in the programs and a more positive prison environment. Effective education programs are those that help prisoners with their social skills, artistic development and techniques and strategies to help them deal with their emotions. In addition, these programs emphasize academic, vocational and social education. The inmates who participate in these programs do so because they see clear opportunities to improve their capabilities for employment after being released.
Program success or failure is hampered, however, by the values and attitudes of those in the authority position, over crowded prison population conditions and inadequate funding for teaching personnel, supplies and materials. In addition, recent studies show that most inmates are males who have little or no employable skills. They are also frequently school dropouts who have difficulties with reading and writing skills and poor self-concepts and negative attitudes toward education. Literacy skills in learner-centered programs with meaningful contexts that recognize the different learning styles, cultural backgrounds and learning needs of inmates are important to program success and inmate participation. Inmates need education programs that not only teach them to read effectively but also provide them with the necessary reinforcement that promote a positive transition to society when they are released. Efforts in this direction would help stimulate better participation of inmates in all prison education programs and will go a long way to help the prisoner rehabilitation process.
Prisoners who attend education programs while they are incarcerated are less likely to return to prison following their release. Since 1990, literature examining the return rates of prisoners, or recidivism, has shown that educated prisoners are less likely to find themselves back in prison a second time if they complete an educational program and are taught skills to successfully read and write. The "right kind" of education works to both lower recidivism and reduce the level of violence. Moreover, appropriate education leads to a more humane and more tolerable prison environment in which to live and work, not only for the inmates but also for the officers, staff and everyone else.
The prison population includes a disproportionate number of adults who are economically poor or disadvantaged. Inmates who are released from prison are frequently unable to find jobs because they either lack experience and/or literacy skills. With the high cost of incarceration and the large increase in the prison population, it seems that mastery of literacy skills may be a proactive way to address the problem of reincarceration. Literacy skills are important to prisoners in many ways. Inmates need these skills to fill out forms, to make requests and to write letters to others in the outside world. In addition, some prison jobs require literacy skills and inmates can use reading as a way to pass their time while they are behind bars. Thus, education programs initially should stress practical applications of literacy so that prisoners can use newly gained skills and insights.
Successful prison literacy programs are learner centered and they should be tailored to the prison culture. They recognize different learning styles, cultural backgrounds, and multiple literacies. The programs are participatory and they use the strengths of the learner to help them shape their own learning. Literacy should be put into meaningful contexts that address the learners' needs. Instruction should involve engaging topics that motivate and sustain the inmates' interest. It should also use literature that is written by prisoners because it provides relevant subject matter as well as writing models. Most of all, the programs must enable inmates to see themselves and be seen in roles other than that of prisoners.
The challenge ahead for educators is that many prisoners lack self-confidence and have a negative attitude toward school. Exacerbating these problems are prison environments that are not rich in verbal and sensory stimuli. In addition, correctional educators have difficulty providing a program that has any continuity. Almost daily they have to deal with the uniqueness of the prison culture with such routines and disruptions as lockdown, head counts, and inmates' meetings with lawyers. Furthermore, educators and students are frequently locked in rooms that are monitored by prison guards and the inmates often face peer pressure where achievement and attendance in school are discouraged.
With the advent of get-tough sanctions, the demand for prison space is great. As state and federal facilities are forced to operate at or above capacity, solutions are increasingly being sought from the private sector. One solution that has gained increased popularity is the privatization of the prison. A private prison is a facility that incarcerates offenders for profit. Figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2002, indicate that about 7% of America's state and federal prisoners are incarcerated in privately operated prisons. By all accounts, this trend is expected to continue. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has announced its intention to increase the number of federal prisoners housed in private facilities to an anticipated 20,000 within the next few years. This suggests that correctional privatization will continue to gain momentum.
Prison privatization is historically grounded. Similar practices were common in parts of Europe during the seventeenth century, having their birth in Amsterdam and Hamburg. The operators of these facilities sought profit and self-sufficiency by charging fees for admittance and discharge, food and water, and even lodging. The recent trend to privatize prisons began in earnest in 1984 when Hamilton County, Tennessee and Bay County, Florida entered into contracts with the private sector. Currently, 158 private correctional facilities operate in 31 states.
The shift from a publicly operated correctional system to one that contains a corporate component has led to concerns about an inherent conflict between…