I'm Sorry Mother, But I'm Going Back to Prison

An essay by Anthony Lee Brown

Anthony Brown writes from Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward, Alaska

The first time your son was put in prison you probably thought, through your disappointment and guilt, that the experience might do him some good, wake him up, straighten him out, give him some incentive to seek the right path. Before it happened, you had no experience and little knowledge of prisons. Prisons and crime are unpleasant subjects— cells and chains, the concern of others, particularly those in the government. After he was imprisoned, perhaps motivated by that guilt only parents can know, you chose not to look, for it was easier or comforting to believe that trained professionals could help your son get his life together, could correct or compensate for the real or imagined parental errors and failings that caused his downfall. Regardless, during his first trip to prison your thoughts concerned his person, not the world and the forces surrounding him. He did the time and you did it without him.

Now, he has returned to prison for another crime and a longer time, and you have discovered how little you know about prison and its purpose. You have learned that what you had gleaned from television and the movies was illusion designed for entertainment and profit; that politicians offer not the truth, but empty mouthings meant to wrangle votes and exercise authority; and, most egregious of all, you have discovered that the word "correction" in the titles and descriptions of the Department of Corrections, correctional institutions, and corrections officers have, in their purpose and function, no relationship to the actual meaning of that word.

Upon your son's release from the hands of those correctional professionals, did you find that he had learned a skill, a trade, or an art to provide honest employment? Had he set aside his use of intoxicating substances? Had your son learned to accept his responsibilities with confidence and fulfill them with pride? Did he prefer the needs of others before his own desires? Had he gained a direction in which to continue his development, both material and spiritual? Had he developed a scale upon which to balance his actions between his ego and the hearts of those he loves? Had he been taught to social skills necessary to choosing his own path, rather than be pushed and prodded along by his peers? Did he learn to value his relationships and to respect himself and those around him? The answer to each of these questions must be emphatically negative.

What you have now discovered, upon your son's return to prison and a closer examination of his environment, is a stratified culture intent, above all else, upon its own continuing existence and growth. Each stratum, from political appointee to union-organized guard, defined by a degree of power to exercise authority over those in their supervision, without accountability for the results of their actions, and without regard for those in their care unless their personal safety is at issue. Overpaid and undereducated prison administrators and employees, in a system with fewer prisoners than personnel, receive more training in bureaucratic paper processing and use of force than in implementing and maintaining treatment, educational and vocational training programs.

Legislators, those elected officials who act in your name, have begin to micro-manage prison facilities through statutory and regulatory decree. Senators and Representatives, each competing to be seen as tough on crime and using a cooperative and ratings-motivated news media, have emotionally whipped the voting public into a fearful hysteria by misinformation, propaganda, and outright prevarication in the face of statistics and facts that give lie to their position that crime is "spiraling out of control" or manifests itself in "waves," and that criminals are morally irredeemable, muscle bound, and genetically predisposed to theft, rape, and killing. Numerous "no-frills prison" statutes, while presented as anti-crime legislation, actually have no effect on un-incarcerated or potential lawbreakers. However, they do promote enforced idleness on prisoners, eliminate opportunities for skills and character development, remove incentives that could encourage participation in treatment and education programs, and deny administrators and guards the tools needed to minimize violence and operate orderly and secure prison facilities. Other legislative actions have resulted in drastic reductions to education and treatment funding, including the cancellation of all federal education grants to prisoners, such as their inclusion in the PELL program— an action that gutted post-secondary education programs in all state and federal prisons. Further, the extreme overcrowding of existing facilities and demands for new prisons is directly due to ineffective and ill-advised statutes mandating ever increasing lengths of sentences, as well as presumptive and mandatory minimum sentencing schemes. None of this legislation addresses a single founding cause of crime or takes a meaningful step towards correcting criminal behavior.

Considering these factors, is it any wonder that your son has returned to prison? He is not alone. The number of other sons who return to prison, either by violating parole or committing new offenses, outnumbers those who don't. Sixty to eighty percent recidivism rates are common in U.S. prisons, and Alaska is no exception.

The solutions to the problem of crime are not to be found in a cycle of perpetual reincarceration and retribution, but in the education and opportunities we provide to our children. People choose to earn their living by committing crimes because they lack viable alternatives and deficient character development makes such choices acceptable, justifiable, or rational. College graduates and craftsmen rarely find themselves living on the fringes of society, addicted to heroin or crack, or in prison. At the same time, unless our society chooses to write off and eradicate all those who have been denied such opportunities and demonstrate criminal behaviors, the answer to recidivism is to be found in providing treatment, education, and vocational training to prisoners upon their entry into the prison system.

The education of the public is as important and necessary as the treatment and training of prisoners. Anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge are the easiest of emotions to provoke, but they are the shadows of the undeveloped qualities of patience, love, and forgiveness. Every wise mother knows that a child requires admonishment for negative behaviors, praise for positive behaviors, and love, acceptance, and encouragement throughout. Having paid his 'debt to society' and been released from prison, was your son welcomed back into the community, or viewed with wary suspicion? Did employers reach out for his skills, or treat him with distrust? Did your son, like a child for whom chastisement never ends, find no cause for self-respect or pride, nor respite from the denigration of his scarlet designation: FELON? Of course not. Yet, the public's suspicion and distrust are logical when viewed in light of present recidivism rates, and the numbers of crimes committed by those released from prison, having served their ever longer sentences without treatment for the disorders or shortcomings that caused or facilitated their criminal behaviors, and without learning the vocational and societal skills necessary to be productive and live in mainstream society.

The measure of the development of our individual characters is found in our sacrifices and our ability to overcome adversity. Just as those who commit crimes against others must know remorse for their actions, make amends to their victims, and learn to be productive members of communities, so, too, must the victims of crime set aside their anger, rise above their desires for revenge, and learn forgiveness. Isolating your son from the rest of society is logical and necessary to inhibit him from committing further crimes, but such separation must have an end and that can only occur safely if treatment, education, and vocational training are made available to him.

The deficiencies in the criminal justice system will only be corrected when you refuse to continue to allow yourselves, your families, and communities to be victimized by those released from prison without treatment, education and vocations skills, or your sons to be repeatedly imprisoned without the opportunity to change their characters and behaviors. Refuse to follow in the footsteps of the citizens of California and Florida, who spend more on prisons than their entire state education budgets, by demanding that those who represent you in government provide funding for the proper education and skills training for your children before they end up in prison. Rather than mandating that longer sentences be served between crimes, demand that those who are incarcerated overcome their addictions, learn to read and write, and possess job skills before they are released, so that second and third crimes don't occur. Since you already pay premium salaries and wages, you should require that correctional administrators and employees be college educated, physically and psychologically sound and suited to their positions, free from the addictions and character defects that afflict those who are in their care, and that they be held accountable for the results of their handiwork.

Unless and until logic defines the purpose of imprisonment to be more than punitive and retributive, and the goal of changing the characters and behaviors of those who are incarcerated is rigorously pursued, you will in all likelihood again and again be plagued by these words:

"I'm sorry, Mother, but I'm going back to prison."

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