The current penal system in America is not working. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion that it predisposes prisoners to recidivism (a relapse into a life of crime). Since man is ultimately a product of his environment, the current system’s products speak for themselves: failure. The system’s practices set its occupants up for exclusion from the mainstream success stories of society.
Except for the families, friends, and loved ones of prisoners and ex-prisoners, most Americans have not really considered their plight and daily struggles. Though various studies show that from one-half to two-thirds of parolees return to prison for violating the conditions of their release, or for re-offending, few (taxpayers, prosecutors, politicians, or CEOs of corporations) seem to have really pondered the critical question: Why is this colossal recidivism taking place on our soil?
Have the citizens of this great industrious nation become so detached and desensitized that they could care less about prisoners’ lives? I hope not, because prisoners desperately need your assistance in reintegrating back into society and upholding the anticipation that they will become an asset to their respective communities. According to Richard Gustafson, a columnist and retired teacher who taught 30 years at Miami Valley Career Technical Center, “National statistics indicate that recidivism is cut in half with support from the community.”
It is my unyielding belief that recidivism is also tremendously reduced when the system pursues its once-desired effect: rehabilitation. However, rehabilitation is a thing of the past. It was in 1790 that the first penitentiary in this country opened its doors to house criminals. The purpose of this new creation was to place criminals in a confined area, where they might ponder over their crimes, repent, and reform themselves. Hence, the term “penitentiary.” Much has changed in the last three decades due to the influences of tough-talking, opportunistic politicians who reduced funding for rehabilitative programs to almost nil. So much so that rehabilitation, or producing a repentant person, is no longer the desired objective.
The current objective is to warehouse prisoners and deliberately create the circumstances for their failure. This crude objective is being perpetrated to perpetuate “job security” for parole officials, individuals in corporate America, and the like, who benefit financially from the prison boom, which currently incarcerates 2.1 million people in our nation’s prisons. This new trend of merely warehousing and punishing prisoners is not conducive to the security and stability of this nation. All it does is mentally crush prisoners’ wills and doom them to inevitable failure.
As a result of this new trend, prisoners are being released with no skills, no education, no support system, no job, and only a few dollars in their possession to try to make it in this dog-eat-dog world. Indeed, a recipe for disaster. It’s implausible for ex-prisoners to survive under these bleak conditions. Let us not forget that unemployment, poverty, exclusion, and a lack of education and guidance are the ingredients which led to their imprisonment. So how can the system, or any rational human being, expect ex-prisoners to succeed when they’re still caught in a catch-22 cycle?
Although a job is an essential means of support that helps people acquire the things they need, trying to secure a job is an ex-prisoner’s greatest obstacle. Except when family or friends have been able to secure them employment, ex-prisoners are refused work due to their criminal history, something they can’t change. With this revolving door being slammed in their faces, how do we expect them to react when they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place? They then end up adopting the only culture they know: survival of the fittest. In plain old English, they resort to exploiting their old ways of living — that is, victimizing others to survive. Because of this induced failure, I share the below sentiments of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz a.k.a. Malcolm X: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that crush[es] people and penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Yet, it is my yearning hope that society will come to realize that in spite of their crimes, prisoners have the same tools, the same potentials, the same basic human desires, and the same capacity for change and positive development which all other citizens possess. They just need assistance in effectively developing their latent potentials. People change — even I have changed. In fact, life itself is a process of transformation.
With this said, it is my prayer that people will call on their elected officials to push for rehabilitative programs in prisons, as well as re-entry programs in society, that will help prisoners reintegrate in their communities and become law-abiding citizens.
In the struggle for prison reform,
Siddique Abdullah Hasan
Siddique Abdullah Hasan is the founding editor of Compassion, a newsletter to develop healing communication between capital punishment offenders and murdered victims’ families. The respected Sunni Muslim prison Imam was sentenced to death for his alleged leadership in the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion. He is currently on death row at Ohio’s supermax prison, in Youngstown, and is appealing his sentence. For more on his case, see Staughton Lynd’s Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press, 2004). To contact Hasan about writing a column on issues relating to incarceration and prison life, send inquiries to: Siddique Abdullah Hasan, #R 130-559, Ohio State Penitentiary, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Road, Youngstown, OH 44505-4635.