Ted Conover, a journalist who served as a prison guard for his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, found that even though pets were prohibited in Sing Sing, the inmates managed to keep animals. One convict kept a cat; another even made a home for a large spider. Pets offered inmates the opportunity to care for something, and the two meanings of "care" are responsibility and love-the key building blocks of rehabilitation. Prison disconnects people. Sometimes it disconnects prisoners from criminal networks or no-good friends, which is what it's supposed to do. But at least as often, prison disconnects people from the family and community members who would be able to offer them the hope of reconciliation. And if no connections are maintained or forged between prisoners and the outside world, when the prisoners are released they have nowhere to go and no one's expectations to meet.
After writing Newjack, Ted Conover found that people constantly asked him how he thought the system could be fixed. His response began, "First, states need to repeal mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses.. I think that most prison time for drug possession does more harm-to families as well as offenders-than good. New York and California are just beginning to give first-time drug offenders treatment instead of prison sentences, and that's a positive development."
The current rush to imprison users rather than treat them has caused our prisons to fill beyond their capacity. Very little rehabilitation can take place when four prisoners are jammed into single-occupancy cells, when there are too many people trying to crowd into too few education or ministry or job-training programs. This is one of the most basic ways to expand inmates' horizons, keep them from getting trapped in prison life, give them hope for the future, and help them turn from being predators into productive citizens. And yet many prisons have sharply restricted their educational programs, viewing such programs as unnecessary frills. Ted Conover writes, "[S]tudies have shown again and again that nothing lowers recidivism rates like education. Refusing to consider post-secondary education as a front-line attack on crime is a terrible mistake. Prisons should start teaching again, and with officers justly resentful at inmates being offered for free what ordinary citizens have to pay for, it makes sense to me that officers should be allowed to take part in these same classes, off duty.
"Along these same lines, I think we should take the lead of European countries in trying to blur the sharp line that exists in our prisons between guards and other employees. The term 'correction officer' is imbued with the promise of reform and assistance. I think it would help to rehabilitate prisons themselves if officers taught some of the classes, did some of the counseling, were allowed to engage their own hearts and minds on the job, instead of just having to pretend they don't have any." As Ted Conover's rich description of prison life from a guard's perspective suggests, trying to maintain family relationships while incarcerated is a difficult task. While large numbers of imprisoned fathers and mothers receive visits from their children and other family members, it is not clear what proportion of all inmates receive visits while incarcerated. When an inmate arrives to prison, a visitation card must be completed that lists those persons the prisoner desires to receive visits from. Any changes to this list must be formally submitted and approved by the prison administration. The reasons for the lack of contacts are varied but can be summarized as follows. New York now operates some 70 prisons scattered across the state; fully 52 of them were built over the last twenty-five years. During this same time period, the prisoner population in the state increased nearly six-fold, from approximately twelve thousand to more than seventy thousand. See: T. Conover, Guarding Sing Sing, The New...
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