The clean-cut guard manning the visitors’ entrance asked me to sit on the wooden bench situated just before the cold steel entry gates. I sat. His dog sniffed me; he was trying to see if I had illegal drugs on or in my body. I fought myself from feeling dehumanized. My head started to swim as I wondered how much of my tax dollars are paying for this exercise that guards repeat on every visitor, at every prison around the country.
I learned many things during a recent visit on the other side of the bricked walls of the Jessup Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland. The last thing on my mind was that this was a place to encourage someone to have compassion or to correct any one’s behavior.
I continued to absorb the rough environment as I sat across the chin-high steel metal molding that separated me from Tyrone, our incarcerated contributor. I looked into his face and saw myself, a Black man getting older. There were plenty of Black men there, more than enough to make the many singles on this side to sing “Sweet Jubilee.”
Tyrone and I talked for more than an hour on a range of subjects, from computers and Obama to changes in the prison system and the Syrian conflict. We had an interesting side conversation about the number of Nigerian-American guards at the prison including a friend of mine.
As you may know, Tyrone met his girlfriend, Ivy, (left) through the magazine. And we talked about how they depend upon the telephone to communicate, I shared with him how in the day of texting and Skype, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finally looking into ending the phone company’s practice of charging mainly low-income families exorbitant amounts to maintain contact with loved-ones in prison.
I have not always been keen on prison reform issues. I once thought that all prisoners were just bad, stupid people until I met Jennifer Smith, who recently died. She wasn’t an ex-con. She was just a community-oriented person who volunteered teaching prisoners how to write. I now join her as seeing the prison system as a collection of missed opportunities.
Prison reform is not about letting criminals go free, it’s about keeping people out of prison and working to make sure they are productive, contributing citizens. Prison reform is also about making sure that we continue to invest in prisoners so that when we release them, we release men and women who are more likely to become productive, contributing citizens. Here are some encouraging words from those who are making changes happen.
Communication Reform – FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn
“After ten long years, I'm proud to share with my colleagues a proposal to reform the exorbitant
Interstate inmate calling regime . . . I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the costs of
Interstate inmate calling service phone calls are reasonable.”
Sentencing Reform – Attorney General Eric Holder
“The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”
Holder then directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to stop charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. He also introduced a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals.
The U.S. Prison Population Declined for Third Consecutive Year - The Sentencing Project
At current rate of decline, it will require 88 years to return to the 1980 level of incarceration. However, racial disparities in incarceration rates persist: Black men were 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as their White counterparts; Hispanics were 2.5 times as likely.