Warehousing inmates is a serious problem particularly in the state of Missouri. The general public must come to grips with this fact and understand that it does not do our society any good warehousing men and women for many years while neglecting to provide the essential instruction and life skills needed for prisoners to successfully transition back into the community after they’ve been released on probation or parole.
The reality is that there is a lack of rehabilitative and educational programming inside of the jails and prisons spread throughout our state. Sadly, the administrators of the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) and many Missouri law makers cannot stomach fixing the problem so they go to great lengths to conceal the deficiency from the public. This is so because the MDOC administrators and politicians satisfied with the way things are know that the one thing that can upset their failing penological policies is an outcry from tax paying citizens who have a vested interest in pressing for sweeping reforms of our criminal justice system.
Everyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with the Missouri Department of Corrections in any capacity understands the MDOC does not adhere to the “all publicity is good publicity” policy. The MDOC administrators in central office in Jefferson City, Missouri go to extremes to control the flow of information coming into the institutions and they control the flow of information going outside of the institutions as well. These administrators govern the prison system with a iron-clad fist silencing all disent from inmates, inmate family members, and of that of its staff. Everyone knows to violate this unwritten ‘rule of silence’ will bring you grave consequences. It is just that simple. You do not challenge the MDOC for human rights violations or for its failing policies, and if you do, you will be punished!
I recall a time when even journalist and reporters didn’t dare mettle with the MDOC, but fortunately, lately I have noticed a positive change in this regard. In recent years a growing number of investigative journalist and reporters have been critical of the Missouri Department of Corrections and have been writing and airing critical stories challenging the policies and practices of the MDOC which in turn is bringing a spotlight on the systems failing policies and practices stirring an outcry from citizens which I am hoping will eventually usher in some much needed reforms.
I believe what’s greatly needed is a focus on ending the policy and practice of warehousing which is the manner in which inmates are being housed in Missouri’s jails and prisons. Back in the mid-90’s largely due to a change in federal penological policies made by the then Democratic President Bill Clinton, policies were implimented and laws passed that affected our state essentially sending us into the warehousing era we are in today within our jails and prisons. As a result, the educational and rehabilitative programming was phazed out of the system and laws and policies were implemented I would argue that increased the recidivist rate and burgeoned our prison population and budget. Nowadays, inmates are spending more time behind bars and being released with less education and job skills making them ill-prepared to transition back into the community and become productive citizens.
Policies like 85% and mandatory minimum laws did not help the rehabilitatve process, but rather, they made things worse inside and outside of jails and prisons. Why? Simply put, these laws and policies stole away inmates “incentives” to change when an offender was required to serve most of their sentences anyway regardless of whether they met certain educational or rehabilitative goals inside of prisons. Nowadays inmates shun the supervision and structure of the probation and parole system because their logic is they have to serve nearly all of their sentences anyway, so why submit to mandates of reform? When serving 85% of your sentence with only 15% of your time remaining, if you are lucky to make parole your first time up before the board, why change or amend ones ways is what the adverage inmate thinks. The incentive for change has been stripped away from offenders from the onset removing any chance for most offenders to be rehabilitated and transformed into productive members of our society.
These days there is hardly any concern for the rehabilitation prisoners. Prison staff do not emphasize rehabilitation or educational progress, and frankly, neither does the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole. What were once social workers inside of the system that helped to socialize prisoners have now become caseworkers whose only concern is housing the inmate rather than rehabilitating him or her.
The parole board claims to care about rehabilitation but in reality, the parole board knows that in many of the institutions the programming opportunites are simply not there. They cannot even enforce certain standards because in many instances inmates cannot get access to educational and rehabilitative classes or attend certain programs because they only exist in a limited number of institutions in our state.
You hear complaints from parole eligible inmates that they do not know what the criteria is for making parole, since the parole board’s practices often do not mirror their policies. There should be in place one set of rules and specific rehabilitative and educational standards and criteria for making parole that apply (equally) around the board for all inmates. One of the policies that was once in place for parole eligibility was having a G.E.D.. However, prisoners started complaining to the parole board of the difficulty being enrolled in school or other rehabilitative programing, so the policy changed to you just had to be enrolled in school or some sort of rehabilitave programs to qualify for parole eligibility. Then being enrolled in programming or school changed to simply being on the “waiting list” became good enough to quality for parole eligibility.
The penological policies from the “ Tough on Crime” era have almost entirely removed rehabilitation from our prison system. Rehabilitation has been suplanted with a system centered almost solely on punishment and warehousing with no real view toward rehabilitating offenders and preparing them for placement back into the community.
I recall the ICVC (Impact on Crime Victims Class) rehabilitative classes inmates were required to take back when I was serving time at the Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC) in Jefferson City, Missouri. ICVC was by far one of the most transformative rehabilitative progams inside of the prison system. The classes were designed to help offenders understand the “residual” impact of their crimes on their family-members, their communities and on their lives as a whole. The classes and instruction aimed to make the prisoner understand the impact of their crimes from the perspective of their victims. To see that the simplist crime could and likely would have lasting affects on a number of individuals in the community including their own family members and that it was not only your victim that you were hurting when you committed crime(s).
Crime victims were allowed inside of the prisons to “tell their stories”. They explained how the acts committed against them impacted their lives and the lives of their family members. We were made to understand that even a property crime committed against a person who had insurance could still alter a person’s life for a number of months or even years! Sometimes, persons committing crimes think, “Ah, the individual has insurance they’ll cover it and it won’t hurt them.” After weeks in ICVC many inmates learned that sometimes that victim replacing what had been lost coult take some time and even then, a person still may not fully recover the lost. ICVC was a remarkable program that made a tremendous difference in the criminal thinking and rationale of inmates who had the opportunity to complete the program, but even that program became limited in the system at many institutions.
Programs like ICVC along with educational programs, computer training, parenting, job training, marital classes, anger management, drug treatment, phychological classes, money management, conflict resolution classes, taxes-filing classes, etc., need to be required in every institution within our prison system. These classes should be accessible to all inmates serving time within our state and not solely the lower level institutions since the reality is that any offender may end up in any institution regardless of crime or sentence.
For the past twenty years or more the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) and law makers have been selling rehabilitation to the general public while practicing warehousing. These contradictory practices must change. The focus of our penological policy should be in investing into the lives of the men and women serving time in the system through offering educational and rehabilitative programming aimed to maintain the safety of the general public, but also, to curb recidivism and deter crime within our communities particularly in the big cities of St. Louis and Kansas City where there is a growing crime epidemic.
Simply put, warehousing and locking individuals up and throwing away the key is a proven failed policy to crime that has done nothing but allow crime to rise to epidemic proportions and grow our incarceration rate to alarming numbers causing Missouri tax payers astronomical sums of money that could have been invested into infrastructure, education and job development.
Warehousing is a failed solution to crime and frankly, I would argue, Missouri tax payers deserve more bang for their buck.
by Anthony Williams, Director
Missouri Prisoner Advocacy Consulting (MOPAC)