Somewhere in the logic of sending people to prison, we lost the core principle that time behind bars should be spent dissuading the prisoner from committing new crimes and helping him make restitution to his victim and society.
We veered from a justice system that put people in prison to pay their dues and learn their lesson to one in which our treatment of prisoners actually encourages them to become more hardened criminals and makes us less safe.
This is where we find ourselves today, as hundreds of thousands of new victims are put at risk each year when our policies fail to measurably impact the future crime risk of those in prison today.
Yet today there was progress. The FCC voted 2-1 today to stop the practice of gouging prisoners on phone rate charges for interstate calls. The rates being paid—mostly by poor family members, non-profits and mentors—would have made the pre-monopoly breakup AT&T blush. Prior to this vote, it cost more for a prisoner to talk to a local pastor or an addiction sponsor than it would cost you or I to talk to someone in Singapore. But because of today’s vote, inmates will have access to family, friends, spiritual advisors and mentors looking to help them turn their lives around.
Just as it took years to pass a federal law to crack down on prison rape, which studies have shown occurs at horrifically high levels, it took nearly a decade of advocacy to lead to today’s FCC decision.
But there is still so much more to do. Another barrier where Americans vent their anger but conversely make our communities more dangerous is in the area of restoration of rights and employment. This debate has raged for decades. How can we be safer if ex-prisoners and convicted criminals aren’t welcome to provide for themselves and their own kids in a legal manner? There are 68 million adult Americans with a criminal record, and we are just now figuring out that by allowing these people to have their own jobs, pay their own bills and raise their own kids, it is not only less expensive to us as the angered taxpayer — it keeps us safer at the same time.
The organization I lead, Justice Fellowship, is in its 30th year of advocating for safer communities, more respected victims and the transformed lives of people with criminal records. Founded by the late Chuck Colson, a former prisoner himself, we are still in the trenches every day trying to find ways that will make our criminal justice system more just for everyone, including the people we incarcerate.
Why should this matter to you or me? After all, these people are in prison for a reason and they did something wrong. Why shouldn’t they own it and pay dearly for the privilege of talking to someone by phone at all?
Because not talking to anyone at all runs the risk of keeping them the same person they were when they became incarcerated—or worse. Hopefully none of us wants that.
The policy of effectively blocking communications helps ensure the person who committed the crime and victimized someone doesn’t change. The policy that looked the other way when prison staff or other prisoners raped inmates cost taxpayers money and made our prisons incubators for sexual predators.
After all, 95 percent of those incarcerated will eventually leave prison and become our neighbors again. More than 700,000 this year alone. Some 40 percent will go back to prison. That is about 280,000 lives lost again to incarceration. Shouldn’t we have more respect for the prospective victims of the 280,000 new crimes and violations and try to change what isn’t working?
As for me, I don’t want the same guy coming out of prison who went in to be living in my neighborhood. I would feel safer if he worked out his issues and had help to grow and change while he was there. Sure, it’s easier to lock ‘em up and forget them if you want to keep growing government, but we’re all safer if we take the time to demand the policies that will hold prisoners responsible and at the same time ensure the government doesn’t take a person in a bad situation, make it worse and then release a bigger problem back into our neighborhoods.
President, Justice Fellowship