Prisons, encircled by high walls topped with razor wire, seem to be closed worlds.
It’s easy to keep them out of sight and out of mind. Since prisons are so remote from most people’s daily lives, it can be difficult to recognize the humanity of the men and women inside and to value their rehabilitation and restoration. Some are skeptical of the entire concept of programs that rehabilitate prisoners. If prison time is supposed to be a deterrent to crime, the argument goes, why should convicted criminals be offered incentives and enrichment opportunities?
We should care because, while prisons may seem remote, what happens in prison doesn’t stay there. At least 95 percent or prisoners—at a rate of nearly 600,000 per year—return to neighborhoods across America, and the conditions of their detention relate directly to whether they succeed—finding jobs, housing, and positive social networks—or fail, falling back into criminal behaviors. When incarceration is necessary, we ought to be making the most of taxpayers’ investment by insisting on policies that respect human dignity, transform people, and build safer communities.
Prisons often focus on making good prisoners—people who will follow the rules and regulations of the institution. But to bring recidivism rates down, prisons also need to prepare men and women to be good citizens when they are released—people who have a sense of social belonging and responsibility. Prisons can do this by providing opportunities for men and women to make amends for the harm they have caused and to earn back the public’s trust. Robust programming, including faith-based mentoring, victim-impact classes, and parenting classes, is essential to make this vision a reality. Participation in these kinds of programs reduces prisoners’ risk of recidivism, but right now, they are lacking or inconsistent in many federal facilities.
The Charles Colson Task Force, a bipartisan body appointed by Congress and named after my organization’s founder, recently released a report. It outlined recommendations to transform our federal corrections system, including that the federal Bureau of Prisons promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation in prisons and incentivize completion of risk-reduction programs. There are two pieces of federal legislation that would help meet this goal. Both the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the House’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Act are awaiting floor votes. Both bills direct the Bureau of Prisons to expand programming, such as drug rehabilitation, education, skills training, faith-based classes, and work programs for all federal prisoners in partnership with nonprofit and faith-based organizations. Based on their risk level, prisoners who complete programs would be eligible for community supervision, or other incentives developed by the Bureau of Prisons, such as increased telephone or visitation privileges. Both bills are a critical step in the right direction.
However, both these bills could also be enhanced with a wider variety of possible incentives. Legislators are understandably hesitant to grant community supervision to people who would still have a high risk of committing a new crime, but it’s these men and women who need programming and incentives the most. Unfortunately, extra phone calls and visitation may not be a genuine incentive for many prisoners, since their families often can’t afford to call or visit with the time already allotted. That’s why Prison Fellowship has pushed for the pending legislation to create a task force including prison officials and former federal prisoners to offer out of-the-box proposals that could prove both meaningful and effective. My colleague Jesse Wiese, who spent nearly eight years in prison before going on to law school and joining the staff of Prison Fellowship, once shared with me that the opportunity to get real art supplies or eat a meal from outside the cafeteria were powerful incentives during his sentence. It turns out that like all of us, prisoners are motivated not just by big-picture changes, but by the little things that give life meaning.
What happens behind prison walls does not stay there; it affects people, families, and communities. Let’s call on Congress to act aggressively on bipartisan criminal justice legislation that reforms sentencing and improves prison culture. As the bills move to the House and Senate floor, Congress should seize the opportunity to expand meaningful in-prison incentives beyond those that have been proposed already. A more restorative culture within the Bureau of Prisons will improve public safety and reduce recidivism, two outcomes that should motivate us all to contact our representatives.
Heather Rice-Minus is the director of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.