As I celebrate the holiday season surrounded by loving family and friends, my thoughts turn to the millions of incarcerated men and women surrounded by cold steel prison bars. In the holiday spirit of compassion, and with an ever-present eye toward public safety and correctional reform, I have compiled a list of my top five wishes for the incarcerated.
Feel free to chime in with wishes of your own!
5. I wish for access to education in prison.
Pell grants are back, at least for now through the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pilot Pell Program. Pell grants help people in prison obtain college educations – a win-win for all of us. From a public safety point of view, prison education programs reduce recidivism. A 2013 RAND Corporation study found that people in prison who participated in educational programs were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not. This saves tax payer dollars, too. And it helps ensure that when people leave prison better prepared to rejoin society.
4. I wish for safety in prison.
Violence between inmates, and violence against inmates by abusive or negligent correctional staff, continues to be a huge problem in prison. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that, from 2003 to 2012, nearly two million inmates were sexually assaulted in prison. Violence is not limited to sexual assault. Inmates have been found dead in highly questionable circumstance. I’ve written here about Darren Rainey, Randall Jordan-Apparo, and Latandra Ellington, all in Florida, but prison violence is a nationwide issue.
When society sends a person to prison as punishment for criminal behavior, society also must accept the responsibility for keeping them safe. Prison violence must be addressed, and the people charged with overseeing inmates must be held accountable for violence that occurs under their watch.
3. I wish for the end of solitary confinement, particularly for people with mental illnesses.
This week, New York announced sweeping changes to its use of solitary confinement, with plans to immediately remove 1,100 people into alternate programs. Earlier this year, California also resolved a lawsuit involving its overuse of solitary confinement. But here’s the thing: there are still thousands of people sitting for months, and sometimes years, in extreme isolation, locked behind a solid steel door, sometimes for 24 hours a day, in shocking conditions of severe deprivation.
People land in solitary sometimes because of violent behavior, sometimes because of non-violent infractions, and sometimes as a prison management tool for people with mental illnesses or people who have done nothing wrong at all. Yet, solitary confinement has been described as torture by human rights organizations.
And people who spend significant time in solitary come out more psychologically, emotionally and physically damaged than when they went in – making it difficult for them to reenter society as productive health citizens. It comes down to a question of morality, and also one of public safety. Correctional reliance on extended solitary confinement should stop immediately.
2. I wish for the end of the death penalty and for reductions in incredibly long sentences, particularly for non-violent drug offenses.
In 2015, death sentences dropped by 33% from last year’s low, with 49 people sentenced to death. And this year, 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. But there are still nearly 3,000 people on death row. I’d like to see that number fall to zero. The death penalty is expensive, inefficient, ineffective, and can result in the execution of innocent people. It also reduces our standing as a human rights leader in the international community, which has entirely renounced the death penalty as barbaric. We’ve got other sentences available, let’s get rid of capital punishment once and for all.
Then there are those serving decades upon decades for non-violent drug offenses. This year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has started implementing a policy of early release for nearly 6,000 non-violent drug offenders, a policy which by next year, could result in the release of roughly 46,000 prisoners total. States, who house the vast majority of drug offenders, should follow the federal government’s lead. It just doesn’t make sense to keep non-violent drug offenders in prison for years, at a stunning price tag.
For too long, we have equated being “tough on crime” with severe sentences. It is time to get smart on crime, and think about punishments that might actually work.
1. For the innocent people in prison, I wish for your innocence to be revealed and I wish for the causes of wrongful convictions to be fixed.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports 1,718 exonerations in its ever growing data base of known exonerations. This number, however, is only the tip of the innocence iceberg because it captures only the cases of innocent people that were identified and exonerated. The actual number of innocent people who have not been identified is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Some estimate that factual innocence may exist in between 2.3% and 5% of all criminal convictions. With millions of people in prison, there could be literally thousands of people in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Innocent people are convicted for all sorts of reasons: bad identification and harsh interrogation techniques, police and prosecutor misconduct, lying informants, bad or fraudulent science, and incompetent defense lawyering, to name only a few. We need to address the root causes of wrongful convictions because the public loses confidence in a system that locks up the wrong person while a guilty person goes free. And truly, there can’t be anything worse than being locked up for a crime you didn’t commit.
It has been said that a society can be judged by how well it treats its prisoners. And this holiday season provides an opportunity to reflect: we have much to do before we, as a society, can be judged favorably.