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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: Blind justice: The need to reform the prison system

Published: September 3, 2010
Section: Opinions


A man (we will call him John) is led in shackles to the front of the court. His appearance is scraggly and defeated; his well-dressed lawyer stands next to him solemnly. The judge begins to ask him a set of procedural questions. “How far did you go in school? Is English your first language? Etc. …” John answers in the affirmative with the voice of a guilty student talking to a principal.

The judge then asks a series of questions to determine whether John is knowingly and intelligently pleading “no lo contendere” (the legal equivalent of a guilty plea). Each monotone response leads to another procedural question. Finally, the judge is satisfied that John is pleading guilty of his own free will.

Yet his problems do not end there. He has a history of criminality and was on probation at the time of his crime. John will serve time both for the crimes he has committed and those he has committed in the past.

He bows his head as the judge reads the sentence that will send him to prison for whatever remains of the cream of his adult life. After she finishes, John is led out of court in shackles as another similar malcontent is led in to take his place.

Scenes like this unfolded nearly 100 times in front of me this past summer. I interned at the Providence Superior Court in Providence Rhode Island, and was able to view a fair amount of trials and hearings.

There was one courtroom which was dedicated to “no lo contenderes,” and this was always the busiest courtroom on any given day. Thus, I spent a fair amount of time there. In fact, I spent so much time there that the judge allowed me and my coworkers to sit in on plea bargaining negotiations in her chambers.

While there, I was saddened to hear the horrific tales of the ruined lives of the men and women who came through the court serving what was referred to by the judge and lawyers as “life on the installment plan.” This meant one infraction after another until finally the criminal had spent most of his life in prison.

By the time he finally got out (if he lived that long), he would find himself old and destitute in a world that had no time for aging multiple felons. Life on the installment plan is almost worse than life in prison–at least life in prison is final. These men squandered chance after chance in a heartbreaking manner, only to end up eventually ceding any hopes of recovery.

The majority of criminals who came to plead to offenses were either already serving life on the installment plan or well on their way to doing so. Nationwide, the recidivism rate for prisoners within one year is an alarming 44 percent.

Within three years, it skyrockets to 67 percent. Once a criminal, the odds are stacked against you to an alarming extent and it is the same pitiful parade of offenders that clogs up the court system and overpopulates the prisons.

Yet if only a few reforms were passed, we could take a sizable chunk out of the recidivism rate and start ensuring that men like John stop adding to their rap sheets and start leading normal, productive lives.

The first and probably most pressing problem is the deplorable conditions in the prison system. Of course, prisons shouldn’t be a hotel, but when 70 percent of prisoners report being assaulted, many sexually, there is a problem.

When prisoners are assaulted, they are much more likely to be prone to violence and/or lawbreaking when they get out, due to the jarring psychological effects of such abuse. Solving this problem isn’t easy, but perhaps a powerful and effective federal watchdog agency could monitor the prisons around the country.

There are prison inspections in the status quo but they are far from producing any sort of universal solvency.

For example, just last week, a prisoner in Louisiana was beaten so badly that he ended up in a coma.

He had been complaining of beatings and sexual assaults for months. And it was not as if this abuse was unknown–the prison chaplain had lost his job trying to bring some attention to him. Yet he still ended up brain damaged and broken. Most prisoners don’t suffer to such an extent but their experiences are similar and they find it harder to rejoin society after such abuse.

At the same time, more rehabilitation initiatives should be employed in prisons. Chances for education are already provided in many instances but perhaps prisoners could be provided training in a field of their choice so that they can be prepared for employment upon release.

It may not work for all prisoners but education should be mandatory and more effective than it is currently. Additionally, perhaps prisoners could work low level jobs (inside the walls of course) both to enrich themselves psychologically and to possibly make the destitute prison system some money. Either way, it is all a lot better than simply leaving them to their own devices and throwing them back out on the street when their sentence is complete.

My final suggestion (and probably my most controversial) would be to allow first time nonviolent offenders to expunge their criminal records upon the termination of their sentences. When offenders are released into society, many find their paths blocked because of the criminal label. If the courts forgave these criminals their first offense, they would have a lot less trouble finding employment, especially in such a sluggish economy. And it is not as if all of these first time offenders have committed such horrible crimes –the most common felony committed in the United States is drunkenness. Finally, expunging the records does not mean that these criminals’ records would disappear.

If ever they were to commit another crime, the legal system would have access to their records. All in all, I can understand the reasoning against it but I believe the risks of such an initiative are far outweighed by the benefits of lessening the amount of criminals who end up back behind the walls they so recently left.

Taken altogether, my hope is that initiatives like this will help lessen the recidivism rate in America’s prisons. This would help not only the prisoners but also state governments insofar as it would lessen their tab as it lessened their prisons’ dockets.

Every one of these initiatives has been on a state ballot somewhere and I believe it is time that they were instituted, lest men like John continually complete the vicious cycle of crime, courts, prison, repeat.