One of the most frustrating aspects of prison life concerns inmate efforts to enroll in classes and programs offered within the prison system. Virtually every prison system offers inmate programs that are designed to train inmates for re-entry into society. These programs, which are designed to address many of the issues that caused the inmate to offend and be incarcerated, include drug and alcohol counseling, anger management, general societal skills, and vocational training. It is believed, and hoped, that participation in such programs ultimately reduces recidivism by enhancing an inmate’s ability to contribute to the community in a positive and productive way upon release. The programs are also important because successful completion in as many of them as possible can increase the likelihood of an earlier release on parole. Earlier inmate release reduces prison costs, and frees prison resources for use elsewhere.
The issue that causes frustration relative to inmate programs is that there are not enough of them, and most of the existing ones are too small to meet the demand. Many inmates try to enroll in programs during their term of incarceration, only to be placed on a waiting list because there is insufficient space to accommodate everyone. It is not unusual for inmates to appear at parole hearings with a prison record showing the attempt to enroll in programs to which they were not admitted because the program was already full. Many inmates – particularly non-violent offenders with relatively minimal records, or those with mental health or drug or alcohol issues – could benefit from such programs if there were more of them, and if the programs could hold more people. Once again, the issue is cost. We needs to ask where we want to spend our prison dollars. Do we want to spend money on simply incarcerating people only to release them exactly as they were when they entered the criminal justice system thereby increasing their risk of re-offending or, alternatively, do we want to devote resources to training and education that will hopefully equip inmates to succeed upon release?
This is not a “feel-bad-for-the-poor-inmate” argument; rather, this has to do with spending large amounts of real taxpayer dollars in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Spending money on just locking people up in a cage is patently silly and ultimately accomplishes nothing; spending money on training them to succeed after they are released is smart. It is noteworthy that we are coming out of an election season. Government spending and costs are issues frequently discussed in every federal and state election cycle. Every candidate for every executive position wants to cut costs, and they each seem to have this endless list of proposed cuts that they will make if elected. I cannot remember any candidate for any executive office ever discuss cutting a prison budget while they were on the campaign trail. In light of the size of our national prison bill, stemming largely from the fact that that the US incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet, this issue clearly merits more attention. The prison system is almost certainly one of the largest line items in the federal budget and in every state budget, and we can lower that number by, among other things, providing inmate training and education geared toward reducing recidivism.
The Obama administration has made criminal justice reform and prison reform something of a priority. One of the most recent expressions of this is the decision of the Justice Department to create a school district within the federal prison system. The Department has hired an experienced prison educator from Texas to be the superintendent of this district. Each inmate will be assessed when they enter the district, and officials will develop a personalized plan that meets their needs. The spectrum of issues that the district will try to address includes everything from basic reading skills and assistance with learning disabilities to affording inmates the opportunity to earn a high school diploma while incarcerated. The Department will also help inmates leaving prison to obtain state-issued identification cards to assist them in obtaining employment, housing, and a valid driver’s license. It is estimated that the district will cost about $1.5 million. This is, however, a small sum in light of the fact that 43% of released inmates are less likely to re-offend and re-enter the criminal justice system if they have the benefit of education and training during their term of incarceration.
In light of the fact that even many relatively low-level line factory job applicants are now expected to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, the new prison school district makes sense. Let’s hope the incoming administration sees it that way and allows this program to continue.
New Brunswick criminal defense firm James S. Friedman, LLC represents defendants in all criminal cases in the New Jersey Superior Court, municipal courts throughout New Jersey, the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and all federal district courts in New Jersey and New York City. Contact us today to discuss your criminal matter.