Tag: prison reform

A Restorative Promise Inside a Prison

By Pierre Berastain

The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk
The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk

When Howard Belding Gill became the first Superintendent of the Norfolk State Prison Colony, presently known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, he created what became known as the first community prison in the United States. Intended as an experiment to introduce a rehabilitative rather than solely punitive model, the prison held men like Malcolm X, who described the place with “no bars, only walls” as practicing “penal policies [that] sounded almost too good to be true.” The staff was conceived not as guards, but as educators and counselors, psychiatrists and mentors. Years after he left his position as Superintendent, Gill returned to MCI Norfolk to mentor young prisoners and visit old inmates turned friends.

Today, MCI Norfolk is a medium-security prison where bars have gone up, but where the commitment to rehabilitation and community remains an important pillar for the Department of Corrections. That is why, on June 13th and 14th, MCI Norfolk staff allowed Dr. Karen Lischinsky, Volunteer Coordinator for the Restorative Justice Group at Norfolk Prison, to work with the incarcerated men and put together a two-day Restorative Justice and Responsibility Retreat. During the retreat, over a hundred inmates were introduced to principles of rehabilitation, community responsibility, and personal introspection. Speaking to the large auditorium of men, Sister Ruth Raichle encouraged the men to think of their lives as interconnected, not just amongst themselves but also to the outside community. “Justice is not something done to us,” she said, “It’s something we build together.” She was speaking of the importance of making amends by publically recognizing the harm they had done and thus begin the process of finding their innate humanity and reconnecting with the outside community. Many inmates acknowledged, however, that responsibility extends past a one-time recognition of their crimes. Rather, responsibility comprises a life-long journey of personal healing and introspection. Reflecting on his own journey, and I heard an inmate say that healing rather than harm is the mark of a responsible life. He wanted to end the cycle of violence he had inherited and contributed to.

The restorative justice retreat at MCI Norfolk gives inmates an opportunity to begin a healing process so that they can live more responsible lives in hopes that one-day, they can return to society. Such commitment to rehabilitation and reintegration cannot be undervalued, especially when, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point. As a result, more and more prison administrators throughout the country are looking for new initiatives that prepare prisoners for re-entry upon leaving prison.

Yet, attending the retreat were also a number of men who would never leave Norfolk’s prison walls. Their promise to better themselves, to live more fulfilling lives, extended beyond personal gains. Inmates spoke of being fathers, grandfathers, or uncles who did not want their loved ones to show up in the cell next to them. I felt a sincere commitment from a number of men at the retreat who wanted to take responsibility for their crimes and learn better ways, as I understood from an inmate, of facing the nightmares in his closet.

Breaking the cycle: 189 years

In the small group discussions, the men showed emotional reactions as they heard victims of crime narrate the pain they felt from the absence of their murdered children. Kim and Ron Odom, whose 13-year-old son Steven was killed in 2007, asked the men to take responsibility for the harm they had done to parents and community. “You have left an indelible mark,” Kim Odom said, “but you can prevent more harm from being done. As a mother, I can tell you we don’t bring murderers into this world.” She and her husband asked the men to reflect and make a promise to change.

For the men of the restorative justice group, that promise has created a more peaceful community inside MCI-Norfolk. I think all of those of us present found it amazing when we heard an inmate say that collectively, the men of the restorative justice group have 189 years without any disciplinary tickets. That accomplishment was possible because of programs like the Restorative Justice Retreat, which brings together inmates and community members who remind the men of their promises. At this year’s retreat, Isaura Mendes spoke to the group about the murder of her two children, Bobby Mendes, 23, murdered in 1995 and Mathew Mendes, 22, murdered in 2006. As the men listened, they sank in their chairs and tried to keep tears inside. They were beginning to grasp for the first time how they are responsible for hurting so many in their own communities.

For many of the incarcerated men who attended the retreat, having mothers return every year and remind them of their commitment to live more peaceful lives reinforces the message that society has not forgotten them, that we remember and hold them accountable. During the retreat, I heard an inmate say he had never felt someone care about him, and that he was amazed to hear mothers speak and see the humanity in him. Many others echoed that feeling.

A number of inmates also spoke of loved ones — a brother, a mother, a close friend — who had been murdered. For them, the process of healing lied in the realization that retaliation does not bring back the smiles of those no longer with us. “That requires a paradigm shift in our culture,” said Ron Odom as he reflected on the need to disrupt the cycle of revenge. Mr. Odom urged the men to nourish their minds with new ideas. A prisoner agreed, telling his fellow inmates in the auditorium that Norfolk can hold their bodies, but it can’t control their minds. He urged them to think deeply about their responsibility, identity, and commitment to the larger community.

It can start at Norfolk

While most prisons in the United States do not operate under a restorative model, MCI Norfolk continues the legacy of Howard Gill to rehabilitate and reintegrate. For True See Allah, an ex-inmate who this past January received a pardon from then Governor Deval Patrick, his time at MCI Norfolk gave him the opportunity to change. “Norfolk is the wound that gave birth to me,” he told the men. We can only hope that more U.S. prisons provide space for inmates to understand the impact of their actions and make meaningful changes in their lives. Our criminal justice system ought to move past punishment and instead adopt a model of reform that helps those incarcerated understand the implications of their deeds. This takes time, but the results can be truly transformative both for individuals and entire communities.


Daphne Holmes: Prison Reform holds Key to a More Peaceful Society

Guest Post by Daphne Holmes

While some believe inmates languish in luxurious settings, with too many creature comforts, prison reformers paint a much bleaker picture of the conditions plaguing inmates in federal and state corrections facilities. Penalties like solitary confinement, for example, are seen as inhumane and ill-suited for rehabilitating criminals.

Wherever you stand on prison reform, it is hard to deny a link between the way we function as a society on the outside, and the way we mete out punishment for those serving time on the inside.  Compassion and empathy are central to human interactions outside prison walls, so they should also play roles in the way inmates are rehabilitated. Until we establish effective programs to break the cycles of crime and recidivism, natural order will continue to be elusive on the streets.  Viewed in this light, prison reform holds real potential for supporting a more peaceful society.

Balance is Essential to effective Corrections Policy

Corrections systems are tasked with protecting law-abiding citizens from harm, by incarcerating offenders.  But the system is also responsible to maintain a balancing act between punishment and rehabilitation, which are not always administered equitably.  The best outcomes are seen when prisoners have opportunities to better themselves, so that positive contributions to society become distinct possibilities for those committed to legitimacy once they are released. (more…)

Why conservatives are learning to hate prisons

Libertarian Marc Levin

By Alan Bean

While conservative politicians remain hesitant about issues like immigration reform or gay rights, the conservative shift away from tough-on-crime politics has been dramatic.

Part of the pressure has come from the Religious Right.  It started with prison ministry.  Evangelicals entered the prisons in hope of converting dark souls, but were impressed by the humanity of the men and women they encountered.

And then there is the fiscal side of the ledger.  Mass incarceration is hideously expensive.

Finally, we mustn’t forget the political considerations.  Republican strategists realize that Southern Strategy appeals to white racial resentment, though still a marvelous mechanism for firing up the base, have a distinct downside.  Republicans can still win large majorities at the state level (at least in the South) with minimal support from African Americans and Latinos; but if you want to win the White House, monochrome support is no longer enough.  You don’t need 50% of the minority vote to win; but 35% would be nice.

Which explains why Rand Paul, the son of a libertarian icon with close ties to racist organizations, was inspired to travel into the predominantly Black west end of Louisville looking for votes.  Paul was changed by what he heard.  Consider this excerpt from a lengthy New York Times article:

Some Republicans want to take the changes even further. Legislation that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is drafting would restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons and convert some drug felonies to misdemeanors.

Mr. Paul, who is a possible presidential candidate in 2016 and has been courting constituencies like African-Americans and young people who feel alienated by the Republican Party, said it was only a matter of time before more Republicans joined him.

“I’m not afraid of appearing to be not conservative enough,” he said, explaining that he got the idea for his legislation by talking with black constituents in the western part of Louisville who complained to him that criminal convictions were often crosses to bear for years, keeping them from voting and getting jobs.

Why is conservative support for criminal justice support so important?

Between 1980 and 2000, Democrats tried to out-tough their Republican opponents by moving sharply to the right on prisons and sentencing issues.  It didn’t work.  No matter how tough Democrats like Bill Clinton and Texas Governor Ann Richards became, the Republicans proved to be tougher.  The result was a punitive death spiral detached from social reality.

It didn’t help, of course, that violent crime figures were skyrocketing through much of this period.  With crime rates at historic lows, politicians have a much harder time frightening the public.  Most voters think violent crime is far worse than it actually is because falling crime rates aren’t considered newsworthy; but the lack of screaming headlines has altered the playing field.

Political progressives sometimes assume that mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences can be blamed on Republicans, but it just ain’t so.  The prison-building mania from which we are slowly emerging was a bi-partisan disaster.  A recent conversation in the Texas Monthly between reporter Nate Blakeslee (who cut his reportorial teeth in Tulia, Texas) and Marc Levin, a libertarian policy wonk, touched on this issue.  (Notice how Levin makes criminal justice reform part of the small government conservative agenda):

NB: On this issue of why conservatives are a good choice to lead this movement, I think some of our readers would say, “Yes, it ought to be conservatives who are doing this unwinding, because they are the ones that wound it up in the first place.” If you guys are moving, as you say, the pendulum back towards the middle, where it belongs, is there a sense in which some of what you’re undoing was done by fellow conservatives? The Bill Bennetts of the world?


ML: Well, I think the winding was done by both sides. You definitely had Michael Dukakis build a ton of prisons when he was governor of Massachusetts. Mario Cuomo built a ton. So, it was very much a bipartisan build up. I mean, Bill Clinton famously went down to watch an execution in Arkansas when he was president, and I can’t imagine Obama doing that or even Bill Clinton doing that if he were president today. I think part of it was that each side was trying to out-tough the other. Maybe some liberal politicians believed in it, maybe some of them just did it because it was politically necessary.


We did a poll of Texans a couple of months ago that basically showed 80 percent support across the board for all these reforms for alternatives for nonviolent offenders. So, when you have 80 percent, that’s strong among every demographic.


But what’s interesting is that that [support] was the strongest among people who identify as tea party voters. I think what you’re seeing is the skepticism of government that animates the conservative movement, particularly on the tea party or libertarian end. Through the revelations about the NSA or things like the Michael Morton case, people have started to realize that a lot of the things that the government does wrong in, for example, health care or education, it also does wrong in criminal justice. And you can argue that when there’s a case like Michael Morton, there’s a worse consequence in criminal justice when government messes up than anywhere else, because you lose potentially your life and at the least, your liberty.


It may strike you as unfortunate that liberal politicians weren’t able to move the needle on criminal justice reform until the conservatives decided to get involved, but that’s the way electoral politics works.  If your sole focus is getting your team on board the best you can hope for is gridlock, and if the wind is blowing from the wrong direction, the consequences can be horrific.  When both parties line up behind a good idea change happens.  It won’t be fast–there is simply too much money invested in the status quo for that–but a change is gonna come, O yes it will.

Republicans take the lead on criminal justice reform

By Alan Bean

Politics is behind the cancerous growth of the prison-industrial complex.  Tough on crime rhetoric only works on the stump if it translates into legislation after the election.  Politicians run on their records and everyone had a vested interest in establishing the right kind of record on public safety.  This article in CQ gives the impression that Democrats have long been in support of ending mandatory minimums and introducing lighter sentences.  It would be more accurate to say that some Democrats would have embraced the politics of compassion and common sense had that been an option.  But since the mid-1970s, it hasn’t been an option.

The ship of fools that brought us the prison-industrial complex is beginning to turn.  Big ships don’t turn quickly.  In fact, the federal prison system has been growing in recent years, largely thanks to nasty immigration policies shaped by post 9-11 hysteria.  But Republican politicians are in search of a kinder-gentler face (no one wants to look like the guy in the cartoon), so the reform agenda has a chance.  How far this new mood takes us remains uncertain.  Everything depends on how far and how fast Republican politicians are willing to move.  This is a Nixon Goes to China moment.  Democrats are still too fearful of political backlash to take the real risks reform demands.

An End to the Jailhouse Blues?

By John Gramlich, CQ Staff
May 13, 2013

Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands. Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations. (more…)

Lehrer: The GOP is the Party of Prison Reform

ICan we let some of them out? confess that I rarely feature articles in the Weekly Standard.  A few years ago, a lead article in the NeoCon magazine accused me of inventing the Jena 6 story out of whole cloth.  I was not amused.

But criminal justice reformers ignore the conservative movement at their own peril.  At heart, America remains a deeply conservative country.  Ergo, if you can’t get a few prominent conservatives to sign on to a reform agenda it’s going nowhere.  In fact, given the baleful impact of culture war polarization, associating the liberal brand with an idea, however noble, can be the kiss of death.  In this WS piece, libertarian Eli Lehrer argues that the Republicans have become the party of prison reform.  The vision is limited, he admits, but that’s what makes it work.  

I have long argued that true reform will require an eclectic mix of conservative and liberal ideas.  Still, any move away from mass incarceration is welcome, and there are plenty of good reasons on both sides of the ideological divide for making that move.  AGB

The Party of Prison Reform

Conservatives lead the way.

By Eli Lehrer

Michael Hough​—​a second-term Republican state legislator from Frederick County, Md.​—​is about as conservative as blue-state legislators come. He played a prominent role in opposing the state’s new gay marriage law, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and received a 100 percent score from the state’s business lobby. (more…)

Grits begs Texas legislators to close unneeded prisons

The state of Texas is poised to make some really bad choices and Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast is sounding the alarm.

A plea to Texas budget conferees: Close two prison units, don’t buy empty cells we don’t need

 This is a plea to the ten conference committee members on the budget from both chambers of the Texas Legislature, who for the record are:
  • House: Pitts, Crownover, Otto, S. Turner, Zerwas
  • Senate: Williams, Duncan, Hinojosa, Nelson, Whitmire

Let’s talk for a moment about prisons. First the House and Senate have both agreed in the base budget to fund 5% employee raises for correctional workers. Please don’t start slashing at those wage hikes to pay for prison units you don’t need. Including the extra money to bail out Jones County, the House decision to buy a prison instead of closing two will cost Texans an extra $116.8 million in incarceration costs over the biennium for those line items compared to the Senate budget. Close the privately-run Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells pre-parole units as suggested by Senate-side budget writers and tell the folks in Jones County they’re on their own, just like so many other counties that built speculative prisons and jails they now can’t fill. (more…)

The Conservative Case Against More Prisons

vgm8383 / FlickrBy Alan Bean

Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin are unimpressed by arguments that associate high rates of American incarceration with white racism.  In fact, race hardly figures in their argument.  Liberals may not have created the high rates of violence that sparked a turn to punitive policies, they say, but liberals didn’t lift a finger to stop the killing.

Reddy and Levin aren’t even convinced that the shift to mass incarceration was a bad idea back in the day.  But with crime rates plunging nationwide, they ask, does it make sense to keep pumping billions of dollars into prisons that aren’t making us safer?

The authors attribute about a quarter of the drop in crime to high rates of incarceration, and I suspect they have it about right.  But that means 75% of the drop in crime has nothing to do with high rates of incarceration.  Let’s lock up the violent criminals, they say, but find less expensive ways of dealing with non-violent offenders that involve less tax money and less government.  To their credit, they realize that everybody suffers when felons who have served their time can’t find decent jobs. (more…)

Sequestration has an upside

By Alan Bean

Sequestration means the federal government will have to make $85 billion in across the board budget cuts.  While Americans like the idea of low taxes in the abstract, they won’t like the concrete consequences of this process.  On the other hand, if the government is spending obscene amounts of money to make America less safe and more unequal, a few cuts might encourage some long-overdue rethinking.

Sequestration will mean a 5% cut to the Department of Justice.  That’s 1.6 billion dollars, y’all.  Since the federal prison system has exploded by 800% since 1980 during a period of falling crime it might be time to close some prisons and find less expensive ways of promoting public safety.

This post on The Hill’s Congress blog makes precisely this argument. (more…)

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…)

The Conservative War on Prisons: how an unlikely coalition of evangelicals and libertarians changed the politics of crime

By Alan Bean

I heartily commend this well-crafted article on the unlikely evangelical-libertarian coalition that created the Right on Crime movement. David Dagan and Steven M. Teles appreciate that liberal organizations like the ACLU, the Open Societies Institute and the Public Welfare Foundation carried the torch for criminal justice reform during the dark ages (1980-2000) of tough-on-crime politic and ever-expanding prison populations.  But liberal politicians have been too afraid of the soft-on-crime label to associate themselves with the reform movement; in fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton built careers on out-toughing the conservatives.

Real political change required a bi-partisan approach, and this meant that the impetus for reform had to come from the political right.  Democrats will vote for change, but only if conservatives give them political cover.  Conservatives, especially in deep-red states like Texas, don’t have to worry about looking soft.

But it goes deeper than that.  The initial inspiration for the reform movement came from the evangelical world.  Pat Nolan, an evangelical Catholic Republican who once carried a torch for the lock-’em-up movement, went to prison in 1993 on corruption charges.  Nolan still claims he was innocent (and I am inclined to believe him) but, like many defendants, he accepted a plea deal rather than roll the dice with a jury.  In the joint, Nolan encountered the brokenness that is the American criminal justice system.  Because he was plugged into the evangelical world of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship and the Republican political establishment, Nolan found ways to make things happen. (more…)