Recidivism

Mass Incarceration: The Politics Behind the Bars

Mass incarceration means 2.4 million Americans behind bars; 2.7 million children with parents in prison, on probation, or on parole; and1.5 million black and brown men missing from their homes. It means having more prisons in America than high school teachers. Most importantly, it means that something in this broken system must change. And as Tobias Winright writes in “A Matter of Degrees,” (Sojourners, June 2015) prison-based education programs—for both inmates and correctional officers—provide a good place to start. 

Read the infographic below to learn more. 

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A Matter of Degrees

THREE DECADES AGO I did a four-year stint behind bars. I wasn’t incarcerated—I worked as a correctional officer at the maximum security jail for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Clearwater, Fla. It wasn’t a career I planned on pursuing.

After high school, I couldn’t afford higher education. I earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, working initially at a video game arcade, then at a factory my dad owned. At the time, I was thinking about a career in law, so my mother and stepfather, both of whom were patrol deputies, suggested that I apply for a job at local law enforcement agencies in order to pay my way through school; the sheriff’s department where they worked ended up hiring me. That’s how I earned my bachelor’s degree while working full time as one of the youngest correctional officers at the jail.

During the semesters I worked the night shift at the jail, I took classes during the day; when I worked the day shift, I took night classes. The contrast between the classrooms and the battleship gray corridors lined with steel-barred cells was striking. At the time, I did not like the jail job; I couldn’t wait until I could “escape” to graduate school.

THAT WAS A long time ago. I did make it to graduate school, though I wound up studying theological ethics, not law, and eventually became a professor. But those four years in a Florida jail were a formative time for me—a time that continues to inform my teaching and writing.

Those memories grew especially vivid last year while I was teaching an ethics course for corrections officers and staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. The maximum security facility, located 60 miles south of St. Louis in the small town of Bonne Terre, is Missouri’s largest state prison, holding more than 2,600 inmates.

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Cory Booker, Rand Paul Shine Light on Shadow Side of U.S. Justice System

Eugene Parciasepe, Christopher Halloran  / Shutterstock.com
Cory Booker, Eugene Parciasepe / Shutterstock.com; Rand Paul, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

There comes a time in every society when it must face its shadow side — and deal with it.

Societies have myths, legends, and superheroes that lay the foundations for national identity, reinforce beliefs about the self and the other, and shape nations’ collective memory. They exist to make us feel good about ourselves, but as a result, they lie to us and distort collective memory.

As prophets did in the days of abolition, the anti-lynching movement, and the Civil Rights movement, modern-day leaders, like Michelle Alexander, have traversed the country shining light on the myth of equal justice in our justice system.

And on Tuesday, the unlikely duo of Sens. Cory Booker (D – N.J.) and Rand Paul (R – Ky.) joined together to address this myth by introducing the REDEEM Act.

"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Booker said in a news release. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend."

Incarceration Nation

THE UNITED STATES has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  In fact, according to the most recent data, the U.S., while having only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, holds 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. The last few years have shown a slight decrease in incarceration rates, but law enforcement policies continue to both target racial minorities and to foster high recidivism rates.  And with the rise of private, for-profit prisons, putting Americans behind bars is becoming an increasingly lucrative business.

  • 2.3 million people are in prison or jail in the U.S.—and one in every 33 adults is behind bars or on parole (2010 figures).
     
  • From 2002 to 2010, the number of inmates held in for-profit prisons increased 37 percent, while the number detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in for-profit prisons increased 206 percent.
     
  • In 2011, 70 percent of people sentenced in federal criminal cases were people of color. More than 34 percent of prosecuted criminal cases were immigration-related, and 29 percent were drug-related. Fraud, the third most common offense, made up less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases.
     
  • Approximately 700,000 ex-offenders are released from prison each year, and more than 40 percent of them are reincarcerated within three years of their release.
     
  • The national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, but even before the recession, unemployment was roughly 75 percent for ex-offenders in the year after release.

                                                                                                                                                         —Compiled by Dawn Araujo

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The School of Second Chances

In an innovative move, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, recently began a two-year pilot project offering college-level courses to convicted felons serving time at the high-security Cheshire Correctional Institution. The Center for Prison Education program provides undergraduate-level courses to a small class of male inmates who were selected in a blind admissions process; reviewers were unaware of the crimes or sentences of the applicants. More than 120 inmates from Cheshire applied to the program; 19 were admitted.

“We believe that educational opportunity should be a fundamental right, and recognize that a college education enables effective citizenship,” Russell Perkins, a fellow at the Center for Prison Education, told Sojourners. “The program offers an innovative way for Wesleyan to embody its long-standing commitments to social justice and civic engagement,” Perkins said. The program was initiated by two Wesleyan undergraduates, based on Bureau of Prisons data that indicated the more education an inmate received, the lower the recidivism rate. The Wesleyan program is unique in Connecticut, which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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