In 1994, Congress passed a crime bill that strengthened penalties for drug offenses and earmarked billions of dollars for new prison construction. Prison populations across the country boomed as a result, with recidivism rates remaining high. Drug offenses became the leading reason for incarceration, but prisons nationwide struggled to provide programming capable of breaking the cycle of incarceration, release, and rearrest. Mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” legislation contributed to a corrections philosophy of “locking them up and throwing away the key.”
Now, over 20 years after that legislation changed the criminal justice landscape, prisons are rethinking their approach to incarceration and rehabilitation of those with non-violent drug offenses, with many favoring a public health perspective on these crimes, as opposed to a more punitive criminal view.
“If we were having this conversation 15, 20 years ago, it would be a lot different,” Eugene Sumpter Jr., special sheriff of Suffolk County and superintendent of Nashua Street Jail in Boston, tells the Boston Globe.
The South Bay House of Corrections is an example of the changing approach to incarceration. The Massachusetts facility offers a number of vocational training opportunities, GED courses, and even opportunities to learn skills like urban gardening techniques or suit tailoring, in addition to programs designed to deal with drug addiction and anger management.
Roughly three-quarters of the prison population in South Bay is dealing with some kind of addiction. Prison officials have come to the conclusion that breaking a cycle of crime requires breaking the dependence on drugs that fuels criminal behavior.
“My addiction comes with the behavior,” says Felicia Young, a 43 year-old South Bay resident who has been in and out of prisons since 1992. “If I didn’t have an addiction I wouldn’t be here. I have an addiction that leads me to doing illegal things.”
“Everything I did was all about drugs,” reflects Michael Galloway, who, like Young, is currently incarcerated at South Bay. “If I never started doing drugs and living that lifestyle that comes with doing drugs, I wouldn’t have had a criminal record.” Back in prison after relapsing from a period of sobriety, Galloway says he is immersing himself in prison programming in an attempt to overcome his addiction. “Even things I’m not totally interested in, I do it anyway,” he admits.
Ninety-five percent of those who are incarcerated will eventually be released to their communities. Without in-prison programming designed to improve chances for successful return, many of these men and women will return to bad habits upon release, often returning to prison, costing taxpayers millions of dollars as a result.
Prison Fellowship believes that prisons should be more than warehouses that merely hold those convicted of crimes for a set period of time. By supporting legislation such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prison Fellowship seeks to transform the prison culture into one that benefits both those behind bars and the communities to which they ultimately will return. To learn more about our advocacy efforts, and how you can be a part of making prisons more effective and more efficient, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/advocacy.