“For Institutional Use Only”: A Look into Prison Reform

Of the 2.3+ million people incarcerated in the United States, 1 in 5 of them are for drug convictions. And, while America has 5% of the world’s population, it holds 25% of the world’s incarcerated persons. Students at the University of Richmond kicked off their prison reform panel discussion with these daunting numbers.

On Thursday evening, Dr. Sarah Scarbrough and REAL LIFE clients were invited to attend a panel on prison reform at the University of Richmond. For their social justice class, UR students gave a presentation to teach their fellow classmates about the deception of the justice system and just how damaging it can be to the lives of offenders. Two of our newest REAL House residents, Calvin and AJ were brave enough to sit on the panel along with Dr. Scarbrough and the former Sheriff of the City of Richmond, C.T. Woody, Jr.

The evening panel began with a powerful presentation on the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs, both political initiatives that are deeply racialized in this country.

These are topics we know a little too well, since a lot of the clients at REAL LIFE are battling or have battled a substance use disorder. We also know that a lack of productive or rehabilitative programming can severely hinder an offenders’ ability to better themselves. This is exactly why The REAL Program in the jail and REAL LIFE in the community was created: to give people a chance to thrive in a system that stigmatizes and handicaps people for life.

It is easy to think that jails and prisons are like Hollywood, with shows like Beyond Scared Straight and Orange is the New Black filling our television screens and our minds with misconceptions about the justice system. AJ and Calvin, who have both been recently released from jail, explained that correctional institutions are far less glamorous than TV makes them seem. America’s jails and prisons are filled with unhealthy and unsanitary food, poor mental and physical health services, and lots of sick people. As AJ said in his panel, it could be one to two weeks before a doctor can see a resident and by that time, the whole housing unit has been infected. The corrections system is also not immune to gangs and drugs: lots of them. Some residents may begin their sentence on a minor marijuana charge and come out as a full blown heroin addict. The current corrections system is clearly set up to exacerbate existing criminal behaviors instead of mitigating those issues, which increases recidivism rates. As C.T. Woody commented, “we need to make better citizens rather than make better criminals.” After all, as we often are heard saying, 95% of those behind bars will be released back into OUR community!

Rehabilitation in correctional facilities is proven to drastically lower recidivism rates.  But the prison industrial complex is a multi-billion dollar beast that sometimes would rather see a body in a prison bed than that same body working towards a drug and crime free future. And, unfortunately, there is so much money involved in the corrections business that some don’t want to see the problem improve. Local jails are built to be short term facilities, yet most function as warehouses for offenders that don’t provide any kind of rehabilitative services. This is why the City of Richmond was so fortunate to build a new justice center, under Woody as Sheriff, with rehabilitation in mind. Not only does it have a state of the art security system, but it contains classrooms, computer labs, and volunteers that teach everything from parenting classes to college-level English. It has windows in every cell and in the classrooms so inmates can look out into the world and see the seasons change.  States across the country are now interested in the rehabilitative model of our Richmond justice center. By providing resources and tools to offenders which allow them to better themselves, it will greatly improve the lives of “regular people who made a mistake,” said AJ.

As Dr. Scarbrough said, “incarceration does not work alone.” Sending someone to jail or prison does not not discourage crime, it makes it worse! If incarceration worked, our jails would be empty! Programming must be introduced in order to act as a deterrent! And often, it’s not the jail officials who are the stopper, but the tax payers and policy makers who are against reforms, most of which cost money!

Virginia is fortunate to not have conditions like places such as Alabama. Virginia is blessed that the jails and prisons are not nearly as dangerous as other facilities in other states. However, there is still much work in Virginia to be done.  Immediately, you can contact your representatives, vote on election day, and educate your friends about prison reform. Better treatment and comprehensive rehabilitation programs will create thriving futures for thousands of returning citizens nationwide.

~ You might wonder where the title of this blog comes from: “For Institutional Use Only” – well that is written on the side of some of the bags of food that the inmate kitchen workers must open and prepare for THEIR meal!