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Crime in the Punishment

Shall our prisons be scrap heaps or human repair shops?
by Elizabeth Gaynes

Jun 23, 2014 | Legal Affairs



Thomas Mott Osborne—the 19th-century prison reformer who became the warden of Sing Sing prison—asked a question that still begs an answer: “Shall our prisons be scrap heaps or human repair shops?”

The association he founded more than 80 years ago continues to answer that question by providing rehabilitation services and advocacy for individuals who have been in conflict with the law, and support for their families.

What the Osborne Association does is described in a line from in a 700-year-old poem by Rumi:

“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help people’s souls to heal.”

We work with the children of incarcerated parents and the children (ages 16-18) detained on New York’s Rikers Island, lighting a path that young people will want to follow if they know it is there for them.

We focus on the children of arrested and incarcerated parents, numbering in the millions nationally—and two in my house. My own children were 2 and 6 when their father went to prison. Their connection to the justice system was once removed, but the impact of incarceration on all these children isn’t at all removed.

We keep families connected, not just because people in prison who receive visits from families are less likely to return to prison after release, but because children have a right to a relationship with parents who love them.

Those relationships change lives, inside and outside of prison.

Lives of people like Samuel Hamilton. When Sam was 19, he committed a gunpoint robbery in which his accomplice fatally shot the victim. Sam was sentenced to 18 years to life. He left behind a baby he barely knew, but a few years into his incarceration, he enrolled in our parenting class at Sing Sing. We helped him reach out to his daughter, and together they built a relationship. When she was 19, the age Sam was when he went to prison, with his help and support, she went to college.

Given his accomplishments, the degree to which he took responsibility for the death of James Carragher, and the remorse evident in his speaking and actions, I assumed Sam would have been paroled, perhaps even following the path from prison to the Osborne Association, to teach our classes, counsel our participants, and lead our programs. Sam has a masters degree, letters of support from corrections staff, his prosecutor, and the former chair of the parole board. Yet he has been denied parole seven times, for the serious nature and circumstances of his crime—a fact he can never change.

I have known many men and women over my 40 years of prison work who have transformed their lives as Sam has. But they also languish in prison, some barely able to remember why they are there, for no purpose but vengeance. At their age they pose little risk to the public.

Our states are selling prisons to publicly-traded companies that have a financial interest in maintaining capacity, maximizing profit, and ensuring that sentences are as long as possible.

After 32 years, Sam is eligible for the AARP, as he joins the fastest-growing group of people in our prisons: our elders. They are noteworthy in part because the cost of their incarceration—especially their medical care—ranges from $100,000 to $200,000 a year, two to three times more than the cost of incarcerating younger prisoners. While they pose no danger, they may have no support when they return to communities that have changed so much in the two, three, or four decades they’ve been away. When they are released, never having seen a cell phone or visited the internet, they may be turned away from nursing homes because of their records. And their families may be long gone. We are going to have to provide the ladder for them to climb up and out.

The cost of incarceration has led to bipartisan support in Washington for dialing back the war on drugs, with Attorney General Eric Holder and the conservatives who call themselves “Right on Crime” agreeing on reducing jail sentences and increasing treatment alternatives for low-level drug cases.

Yet while the march to prison is slowing down, it has not fundamentally changed direction, as many of the new reformers want to divert people they call “nonviolent” to create space for people like Sam Hamilton. And “bipartisan” means little when the direction of our incarceration nation is determined not by government, but by the private sector.

Our states are selling prisons to publicly-traded companies that have a financial interest in maintaining capacity, maximizing profit, and ensuring that sentences are as long as possible.

Consider this from the Corrections Corporation of America’s 2011 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws.”

New York has no private prisons and, due to decreased crime, is closing prisons. One is being turned over to Osborne for us to channel our founder and turn it from “a scrap heap to a repair shop.” When we convert the Fulton Correctional Facility into a reentry center providing transitional residence for people returning from prison and jail, and an economic development center housing social enterprises that hire formerly incarcerated people, Fulton will become a lamp, a lifeboat and a ladder.

When people go to prison, they learn to be prisoners. When they leave prison, as most of them will, they need to relearn how to be members of our communities.

Elizabeth Gaynes is the executive director of the Osborne Association, a criminal-justice organization reaching over 8,000 individuals each year.

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