After 25 years’ experience as a prisoner, I blame George Costanza, or someone like him, for the state of America’s prison system. George, Jerry’s ne’er-do- well sidekick on Seinfeld, had a knack for always getting it wrong. Our prison system couldn’t get it more wrong, which is why I suspect the grand architect was George.
But, oddly enough, some George and Jerry logic may also help us find a solution to this country’s unparalleled mass incarceration problem.
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As Jerry Seinfeld might joke in an opening monologue, What’s up with the high rate of recidivism? One thing a prison is supposed to do, in theory, is to keep prisoners from returning to prison. Yet 43% are back within 3 years, a failure rate that would drive any other enterprise out of business. If 43% of GM’s cars had to be recalled within 3 years, they’d soon go belly up – and they wouldn’t have received a multi- billion-dollar bailout several years ago. But the dysfunctional prison system keeps plugging along, taking no responsibility for the products they churn out, still devouring billions of tax dollars year after year. As Kramer would say, That’s kooky talk!
A common perspective is that prisoners themselves are solely to blame for recidivism. Prisoners return to prison due to poor personal choices, not due to any systemic failure. Blame the individual; don’t blame the state. But here’s how we know this perspective is dead wrong: No other country has this recidivism / mass incarceration problem. If the blame belongs solely to individuals’ choices, then other countries, whose citizens are no better and no worse at decision-making, would have the same incarceration problem.
The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, six times higher than the world average. (Adam Liptak, U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations, New York Times, Apr 23, 2008). To say the fault lies solely with the prisoners is to say that Americans are naturally six times more criminally prone, and six times less likely to reform. In other words, Americans must have crime and stupidity embedded in their DNA. Short of an anthropologist telling us he’s isolated the crime gene in Homo americanus, that argument is something only a “short, stocky, slow-witted, bald man” would advance.
Clearly, the government’s response to crime has something to do with America’s mass incarceration problem.
In finding a solution to the recidivism problem, we can turn to George, or really, to Opposite George. In one classic Seinfeld episode, George was exasperated that nothing ever worked out for him, and he offhandedly suggested that maybe he should just suppress his natural instinct and do the opposite. Jerry agreed: If every instinct you’ve ever had was wrong, then the opposite .. . would have to be right.
Channeling Opposite George, we can turn the recidivism problem on its head, as I did at our prison lunch table recently. Instead of asking how the prison system can keep guys out of prison, I suggested, maybe we should ask what the system could do to ensure that we come back. The guys laughed, and gamely followed with plenty of suggestions:
Have no skilled trades, no vocational training, said Jimmy Croom. If a guy’s got no way to make a decent living, he’ll be back. Every man agreed.
No education at all, proposed Mike Shannon. Education’s the only thing that changes how a person thinks. Without education, guys are likely to keep making poor decisions, over and over.
Robert Hicks identified drugs and alcohol as a huge problem. When guys come in with a drug addiction, don’t provide any treatment. An untreated drug addict is a sure thing to come back.
Not only no drug treatment, said another, but let drugs flood into the institution. Keep guys hooked. And let me make the money off of it!
He was describing something he was already doing.
Another man focused on the way men are released: Make sure we leave prison broke, with no place to go, and no job lined up. You might want to do right, but times are hard when you first get out. And the parole officer – he’s not there to help you, he’s just there to put you back inside.
Instead of gate money, I joked, how *bout they turn us loose with a pistol and a ski mask?
Then Mike made the observation that made our Opposite George exercise clear. Wait a second… Except for the free handguns, everything we mentioned is stuff they’re already doing! We get virtually no education, no job training, no skills, no drug treatment, no help getting a job or a place to live on the outside. It’s like they WANT us to come back! Every head nodded agreement.
What about our environment in prison, I asked. How we’re treated, how we’re fed, how we’re talked to? How we’re caged, in solitary much of the time? You’d think the Soup Nazi was in charge of this place. Shouldn’t being treated bad make a person not want to return to prison?
Jimmy quickly responded, That’s what 90% of the people on the streets don’t understand. Treating us bad just teaches us that it’s okay to treat people bad. It teaches us to have no respect for other people.
It’s like when you’re beaten as a child, said another. Once you grow up and the person who beat you is no longer around, you feel like you can do whatever you want. Punishment doesn’t develop any inner desire to do what’s right. In fact, punishment just makes you more rebellious.
Mike parsed the question more finely: Not wanting to return to prison and wanting to obey the law are two entirely different things. Nobody wants to return to prison. But how do you instill within a person the desire to obey the law? I say it’s only through education and educational programs.
Mike is right. The most effective way to reduce recidivism has proven to be through education. Nationwide, 43.3% of prisoners return to prison within 3 years of their release. However, for prisoners holding a Bachelor’s degree, the recidivism rate plummets to 5.6%; for Master’s degrees, the rate is below 1%. (Vivian D. Nixon, Education is Better Than Punishment, Prison Legal News, Dec. 2014). The recidivism rate drops, and the prisoner’s earning potential rises, no matter what level of education is attained – Associate’s degrees do better that high school grads, GED grads do better than high school dropouts, vocational training provides skills that pay a lifetime of benefits. The undeniable correlation is that more education enhances one’s ability to make better personal choices, which means less recidivism.
Of course, most people don’t like to see their tax dollars spent on prisons or undeserving prisoners. I understand the fetish of fiscal conservatism – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but our antiquated thinking on prison spending must evolve if we are to rid this nation of mass incarceration. Prison spending should be looked at as an investment, not as an expense. Currently, states spend billions to incarcerate, but there is practically nothing devoted to investment in education to create what sociologists and economists call human capital.
For example, Indiana’s corrections budget extracts $720 million annually from state taxpayers, with less than $9 million earmarked for education services. (www.in.gov / Public Safety Budget, 2014-2015). Instinctively, one would think that a primary corrections concern would be providing education in order to correct aberrant behavior and transform prisoners into productive citizens. But if that were the goal, the corrections budget would have 20%-30% devoted to education, as is found in European countries that have low recidivism rates, not the paltry 1.24% that Indiana legislators consider sufficient. And it’s this way all across America.
The basic objection to providing education to prisoners is this: Why give bad people a free education when everybody else has to pay for it? The answer is, Education is an investment by the state that benefits the state.
We fund millions of students who cannot pay their own way, and it is a foundational strength of this nation. In 2011, over $21 billion in financial aid went to 2,184,000 college students. A whopping 82% of all students received some form of financial aid. Federal grants went to 48% of all students; 31% got state grants. (2014 World Almanac, p.390, Financial Aid for U.S. Undergraduate Students, U.S. Department of Education). This was money well spent. Those who received aid became better wage earners and better citizens, which was the underlying purpose of the state’s investment. Education funding is not a matter of who “deserves” aid, but a mission to improve our society. And it works.
I’ve seen it work in prison. Prior to 2011, Indiana prisoners were eligible to receive the state O’Bannon Grant to attend college. There’s nothing like sitting in Anthropology 311, Ethnicity, as I did, and watching rivals – Black Disciples and Aryan Brothers – get their thinking challenged, and changed. I could see it working, could see them begin to consider each other as fellow humans, and I witnessed the changes in their behavior.
All behavior, good or bad, begins with how one thinks.
Unfortunately, college courses are no longer available in Indiana, because the state legislature eliminated prisoner eligibility for grants. The federal Pell Grant went the same way in 1994.
Every prisoner should be afforded the opportunity to advance his education. Warehousing prisoners, or having them work menial jobs, is not preparing them for future employment. If they were educated and trained, employers would look at exprisoners as persons on an upward trajectory, and would believe that employing them would be a good move for everybody. As it is, employers leave most job-seeking ex-prisoners sitting idle. Before long, these idle ex-prisoners wind up back before judge who admonishes them for re-offending – yadda, yadda, yadda – and gives them longer prison sentences because – get the irony of this – they didn’t “learn” the first time.
Solutions exist. Mass incarceration can end, but it requires a change in every legislature’s philosophy toward prisoner education, and a subsequent commitment to transforming our prisons from warehouses to places of reform. We don’t have to be the world’s leader in incarceration, and it’s an embarrassment that politically- confused countries like Russia and North Korea actually have fewer prisoners per capita thafo does the United States.
It’s simple: Make education a priority. Rearrange the corrections budget to provide education to every prisoner that desires to learn, available immediately upon entry into prison. Reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for the Pell Grant. And, similar to the G.I. Bill, allow correctional officers to enroll in college with the same kind of aid that prisoners get. The officers are poorly compensated, and they need education and training as well.
If it requires a larger budget, then have the sense to defend the expenditure as an investment in human capital that pays long-term dividends. Alternatively, states could close one-fifth of the prisons, reduce the overinflated prison population by 20%, and invest the savings in educating the other 80%, with no net increase in costs.
The best solutions don’t even require more money. They only require more intelligence, more resolve, and more leadership: “doing the opposite” of whatever it is that we’re doing now.
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The Seinfeld series ended with George, Jerry, Kramer and Elaine sent off to prison, four more hapless prisoners packing the already over-crowded system. We never got to see if they were warehoused or educated, if they grew a social conscience or not. My bet is that they’d have simply counted the days, and nothing would have changed. Had the series revived, they’d have been no different. George would still be a rage-aholic, Kramer would still be sabotaging washing machines, Elaine would still be pilfering antique cake, and Jerry would still be socially apathetic, saying about all of it, Thats a shame.
In here, we simply count the days. And that’s a shame.
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Ty Evans #158293
Indiana State Pen
1 Park Row
Michigan City, IN 46360