Category: prison reform

Johnny Cash, prison reformer

By Alan Bean

This fascinating essay touches on Johnny Cash’s lifelong prison ministry.  (It was produced for the BBC, which explains the funny spelling). It may sound odd to hear songs about “kickin’ and a-gougin’ in the mud, and the blood and the beer” characterized as a ministry, but that’s exactly what they were.  I purchased Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison a few years ago thinking this was the only prison album he recorded and likely the only prison concert he performed.  Not so.  He recorded two prison albums and performed at prisons across the United State throughout his 30-year career. (more…)

Mississippi can’t kick the private prison habit

By Alan Bean

Geo Group, the private prison firm that lost three prison contracts in Mississippi earlier this year because of gross violations that turned facilities like the juvenile prison at Walnut Grove into hell holes, has been disciplined again.  This time, Geo is accused of failing to protect the safety of corrections workers at its prison near Lost Gap MS.

You would think that Mississippi officials might be getting the idea that private prisons aren’t such a good idea.  Not so.  Christopher Epps, Commissioner of the MS Dept. of Corrections, immediately announced that all the three private prisons previously run by Geo Corp would be turned over to the Management & Training Corporation of Centerville, Utah.

According to the Associated Press, Epps is hoping for a better result.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections is looking forward to a great partnership with MTC,” Epps said in a statement Thursday. “There is a need for different types of prisons, including state and regional as well as private facilities in Mississippi. MTC will be held to the same high standards as set by MDOC and I feel extremely confident that MTC will do a great job.”

Epps told reporters he thought Mississippi would get better terms if the three prisons were sold as a package deal.  In other words, Mississippi is trying to do corrections on the cheap, and that’s the problem.  The only way private prisons can turn a profit is by cutting corners.  If they were really held to the same standards as state prisons they would have to hire as many corrections officers as MDOC and pay them comparable salaries.  The private prison industry would also have to invest in a safe working environment for their employees, something that Geo Corp clearly failed to do. (more…)

Charles Blow: Plantations, Prisons and Profits

Charles Blow

By Alan Bean

If you really wanted to read the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s eight-part series on the state prison system, but only have time for one quick read, columnist Charles Blow has what you need: a quick summary of the high points. 

Here’s his conclusion:

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed. It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.

As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

The T-P’s groundbreaking series provides a “thick description” of a deadly interplay between a tragic racial history, a shrinking agricultural economy and tax base, a paranoid electorate, underpaid and under-resourced sheriffs, and a craven political class.  This is the kind of description I attempted in my Taking out the trash in Tulia, Texas and it is great to see the mainstream media, even in these belt-tightening times, taking their responsibility, and their readers, this seriously.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits

By Charles Blow

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. (more…)

Growing old behind bars

By Alan Bean

It is good to see Human Rights Watch tackling the issue of aging prisoners.  I will never forget talking to Joe Moore, a brittle diabetic with bad knees, through the Plexiglass in the visitation room of a Texas prison.  The folks handling the medical contract for the state prison system were trying to cut expenses.  A doctor decided to take Joe off his insulin to see if he really needed the medication.  First Joe lost his balance; then his tongue doubled in size, then his eyesight went.  When Joe told the guards he was too sick to work, they forced him to dress and join the kitchen detail.  Joe tried to comply, but he fell unconscious to the floor of his cell and came within a whisker of death.  Without influential supporters in the free world, Joe would have died behind bars.

Joe Moore died a few years after being exonerated and released from prison.  His friends were with him and he was able to buy a little farm and work his own cattle after release.  He left this world with his dignity intact.

And then I think of Ramsey Muniz, the Latino politician and civil rights legend currently housed in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.  Ramsey is 70 years old and can’t walk without the help of a cane.  Like Joe Moore, Muniz is the victim of a shady drug bust and a rigged trial.  But what if, like most prisoners, Joe and Ramsey were guilty as charged?  Does it make any sense to warehouse aging men and women, at an average cost of $50,000 a year, who no longer represent a threat to public safety?

The excellent eight-part series on Louisiana incarceration in the Times-Picayune emphasized the growing geriatric wing of the state’s notorious Angola prison.  Decades of life without parole sentencing have created a pitiless system bereft of compassion and common sense.

In her summary of the 110-page report she produced for Human Rights Watch, Jamie Fellner underscores the senseless horror of forcing thousands of elderly offenders to die behind bars.

Among the more than 26,000 state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older are some who have severe physical and mental impairments.  One 87-year-old I met last year while conducting research on older prisoners could not tell me his name. He had been in prison for 27 years, 20 of them in a special unit because of his severe cognitive impairments.  I met prisoners who were dying and could not breathe without assistance; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their bed and into their wheelchairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves.

Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up. Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous? (more…)

Trulear: Prison Ministry after Chuck Colson

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear

As a pastor, a scholar, and an ex-prisoner, Harold Dean Trulear has earned the right to talk about prison ministry from the outside in and from the inside out.  I last saw Dr. Trulear in Washington DC when we were both part of a convening of faith leaders interested in ending mass incarceration.  Pat Nolan of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship also attended that gathering.  Like Trulear, Nolan has seen both sides of the prison wall and we had some good, frank conversation about the future of reform.  In this honest appraisal written for the Center for Public Justice, Dr. Trulear evaluates the mixed legacy of Nolan’s old boss, Charles Colson, and points the way to a viable relationship between Prison Fellowship and the Black Church.

Prison Ministry in the Post-Colson Era

By Harold Dean Trulear

The recent passing of Chuck Colson brings opportunity to reflect on the important legacy of his ministry and the ways in which Prison Fellowship participated in a resurgence of interest in prison ministry. Christian faith significantly influenced early forms of incarceration in this country, from the philosophy of repentance institutionalized in the penitentiary movement to the role of chaplains as singular service providers for inmates prior to the era of “corrections” and “rehabilitation.” Unfortunately, in recent decades prisons have been more punitive and controlling than redemptive.

Chuck Colson, for many (but not all) Americans, humanized the inmate. He created an organization that pressed for a recovery of transformation, rehabilitation and real “corrections,” initially through evangelism and later through initiatives that pressed for reform in prison conditions, sentencing issues and criminal justice policy. For many Americans, Colson’s work provided opportunity for a renewed commitment to a population whose treatment Jesus included in matters of judgment in Matthew 25.

In spite of the work of Colson and others, many people are still trapped in what T. Richard Snyder called “the spirit of punishment,” in which revenge—often euphemized as “seeking justice”—trumps grace and forgiveness, which are central to our justification before God through the atonement. Many Christians continue to reflect the broader cultural consensus of revenge, which is a sad by-product of our failure to develop a critique of modern and post-modern culture beyond issues such as sexuality, authority and family.

African American churches constitute another group for whom Colson’s leadership must be qualified. The historic, disproportionate confinement of people of color connected many Black congregations to jails and prisons prior to the emergence of Colson’s Prison Fellowship—both through personal networks and through a sense of serving the marginalized. And while Colson led the charge for federal criminal justice policy reform for white Evangelicals and political conservatives, African American Congressman Danny Davis (D.-Ill.) and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference provided the leadership for African Americans.

Chuck Colson, as a national figure, and Prison Fellowship, as a national organization, have exercised faithful stewardship of their resources in the implementation of their national ministry and its local incarnations. Yet, the relationship between Prison Fellowship and local congregations—particularly Black churches—has been uneasy. In 2008, a partnership developed between Prison Fellowship and the historically Black denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, signaling what Colson himself called “a perfect storm” around criminal justice issues. Yet, tensions emerged surrounding the need for Black congregations to access resources to expand their prison ministry presence in a manner that reflected a true partnership, rather than a paternalistic engagement placing the national organization at the forefront and the local congregation in the background. Prison Fellowship staff were charged with the task of providing training and certification for Black congregations to minister to their own community members. This sense of paternalism—and the resentment it created—was exacerbated by the ability of Prison Fellowship to attract significantly more financial resources than local organizations and congregations.

So whither the future? First, in addition to continued evangelism, prison ministry must continue to expand into matters of discipleship and policy. The presence of the church in the jail cannot simply be a matter of “soul-winning.” Secondly, prison ministry must view its work as a fundamental province of local congregations. With 1.6 million adults in state and federal prisons, and up to 7 million more rotating annually through the county jail system, it is difficult to imagine a congregation in America whose relationships do not stretch directly into some prison or jail. Churches must act on their responsibility to minister to the prisoners within their own community. National organizations like Prison Fellowship must also redouble efforts to partner with local congregations to empower them to be indigenous stations of reconciliation that can supply far more social capital than any parachurch/volunteer network. Third, there must be real reconciliation between white Evangelicals who control parachurch operations and African American congregations whose family and community members are the targets of these parachurch efforts.

All of this amounts to a real balkanization of power from centralized control of ministry (that’s right, just like political federalism) into the type of local investment that flourishes when properly capitalized in both human and financial resources. Colson saw this need personally, and these shifts would honor his legacy in terms as great as the work he accomplished during his lifetime.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing CommunitiesPrison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

Mississippi Warden guilty of sex charges

By Alan Bean

Little Walnut Grove, MS is back in the news, and once again its private prisons are part of the story.  Recently, juvenile inmates were removed from the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility after charges that inmates had been sexually and physically abused by prison personnel were sustained by a formal inquiry. 

Now comes Grady Sims, the warden of the Walnut Grove Transitional Center, and the community’s former mayor.  Sims recently pled guilty to transporting a female inmate to a hotel in a nearby town, then threatening her with retribution if she spoke out.  Sims will be sentenced in federal court tomorrow.

Is there something sinister in the water in Walnut Grove, or are we dealing with yet another unintended consequences of the privatized prison phenomenon? 

Private prisons, by definition, easily flout the limited safeguards and ethical standards enforced by state and federal governments.  When responsibility for corrections is shifted to the private sector, an out-0f-sight-out-of-mind mentality takes hold. 

Grady Sims is both the embodiment and the victim of this mentality.

In Praise of Charles Colson

By Alan Bean

I was gratified to see Michael Gerson’s tribute to Chuck Colson in the Washington Post.   Most of the coverage of Colson’s death over the weekend focused on his responsibility for Nixon-era smear campaigns and dirty tricks.  His work on behalf of prisoners and their families was mentioned in passing but received short shrift.

Gerson went to work for Colson as a young man and has always been fascinated by the intensity and thoroughness of his mentor’s conversion.  Consider this lovely paragraph:

Prison often figures large in conversion stories. Pride is the enemy of grace, and prison is the enemy of pride. “How else but through a broken heart,” wrote Oscar Wilde after leaving Reading Gaol, “may Lord Christ enter in?” It is the central paradox of Christianity that fulfillment starts in emptiness, that streams emerge in the desert, that freedom can be found in a prison cell. Chuck’s swift journey from the White House to a penitentiary ended a life of accomplishment — only to begin a life of significance. The two are not always the same. The destruction of Chuck’s career freed up his skills for a calling he would not have chosen, providing fulfillment beyond his ambitions. I often heard him quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and mean it: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”

I read Colson’s “Born Again” during my first year of seminary and came away impressed.  For all his compassion, he never strayed far from the core convictions of the Republican Party and, for the cause of criminal justice reform, that was a blessing.  Richard Nixon’s self-described “hatchet man” had instant credibility in conservative circles.  They might not be able to listen to the ACLU or the Legal Defense Fund, but they were open to Colson.

How much impact did Colson’s opposition to mass incarceration and the death penalty really have?  For thirty years he was a voice crying in the wilderness as bipartisan support for punitive policies controlled the national agenda.  His message has registered more effectively in the past two years than at any earlier period of his career.  His Prison Fellowship has been instrumental in drafting the “Smart on Crime” movement that has enjoyed considerable success in conservative circles.

Gerson’s column is highly recommended.

Are drill sergeants an improvement on prisons?

By Alan Bean

As a group, criminals are deeply alienated from mainstream society.  They are more likely to have mental health issues, to be drug addicted, to be high school dropouts and to have severe learning disabilities than the average person.  Moreover, as David Kennedy argues in Don’t Shooteven when jobs programs are available “not many street guys come forward, not that many can stick with the social-service programs designed to help them, not many can make it even when they really try.  They’re heavily compromised in awful ways: They have appalling criminal records, street attitudes that are hard to shake, they’re shocky, they have terrible work habits.”

Are there exceptions?  Certainly.  Thousands of them.  But public policy is driven by the normal case, and that isn’t very encouraging.  On the other hand, prison normally makes things worse.  Prisons didn’t work as reformatories back in the day when reformation was a serious concern, and they are much worse now that we have decided to warehouse inmates.  When ex-offenders return to the free world, they are walled in by restrictions that would force the most capable and motivated person to throw in the towel.

What are the alternatives?  Some people need to be in prison.  They’re dangerous.  But what about the majority of inmates who aren’t violent?  Can’t we find a more creative response to street crime than prison and felon disenfranchisement? (more…)

Bibas: Prisoners should learn to work

Prison Work for Martha StewartStephanos Bibas has been guest blogging at Doug Berman’s excellent Sentencing Law and Policy Blog in recent days.  What follows is the fifth installment in a series on the machinery of criminal justice.  In earlier posts, Bibas has chronicled the evolution from mercy to punishment.  His fifth offering will be controversial.  Reacting to the growing for-profit prison industry, criminal justice advocates typically decry attempts to profit off the toil of the incarcerated.  Bibas approaches the issue from a different angle.  Let us know what you think.  AGB

From Idle Imprisonment to Work

Stephanos Bibas

In my previous posts about my new book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, I’ve sketched out a few of the ways in which punishment has changed in recent centuries and how modern punishment has become mechanistic, insulated, and hidden. In my last few posts, I’ll propose a few reforms to make punishment more visibly pro-social, by encouraging work, accountability, reform, and reintegration. Today I’ll focus on prison labor.

When we convict defendants of moderately serious crimes, we usually imprison them. American prisons, however, are deeply flawed. Prison severs inmates from their responsibilities, hides their punishment, and does little to train or reform them. Victims and the public do not see wrongdoers being held accountable, paying their debts to society and victims, and learning disciplined work habits. Instead, they visualize lives of idleness, funded by taxpayers. Thus, wrongdoers are unprepared to reenter society. And victims and the public, believing that wrongdoers have neither suffered enough nor learned their lessons, are loath to welcome them back.

The vast majority of prison inmates spend their days in idleness, with endless television and little labor. The minority of prisoners who do some work in a prison laundry, cafeteria, or license-plate shop rarely cultivate skills that are in demand in the outside world. Even prisoners who are able to work earn far less than the minimum wage, not enough to support a family or repay victims.

Nor is life inside most prisons structured to teach good habits such as self-discipline or productivity. On the contrary, prison encourages listless dependence on institutional routine, setting prisoners up for failure upon release. Healthy habits, such as the orderly work envisioned by prison reformers, broke down long ago.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of imprisonment is its hiddenness. It is out of sight behind high prison walls and thus out of mind. It is too easy for the public to forget about it, to overlook the sporadic prison stabbings and rapes, or simply to discount the terrible soul-destroying, idle monotony. (more…)