"Please Release Me, Let Me Go"
Please release me, let me go
For I don’t love you anymore
To waste our lives would be a sin
Release me and let me love again
Engelbert Humperdinck, 1967
Prisons are filling rapidly. In fact, they’re already as full as a corporate CEO’s Swiss bank account. Cells designed to hold one inmate now house two, three, and four or more felons. Institutional gyms have been converted to human warehouses, stocked with an assortment of offenders. It’s not unusual to see steel beds bolted to the walls in prison and jail hallways.
Trailers, mobile homes, tents, and shipping containers have all been re-configured as prison and jail housing units. We’re packing people (many of whom are non-violent offenders – pot smokers, and drug addicts) in faster than they’re coming out. The revolving door simply cannot keep up the pace. Neither can the pockets and checkbooks of U.S. taxpayers.
Currently, there are 7.3 million people in the U.S. correctional system. That’s a staggering 1 out of every 31 adults. In 1982, that total was 2.2 million.
In 2007, one in 11 African American adults (9.2 percent) were in the prison system.
The rise in prison population is quite overwhelming – overwhelming and dangerous. But is it necessary?
How many prisoners are serving long sentences for relatively minor, non-violent crimes? What happens to these individuals when their time is up? Why does the United States lead the world in the number of incarcerated men and women? Why do southern states incarcerate more people than other states?
Felons (I’m only speaking of the non-violent offenders – drug abusers, etc. – who have learned their lesson and want to become productive citizens again) basically have no reason to follow the straight and narrow after their release from prison. They can’t find decent work, if they can locate any work at all, because of their criminal records. A cause of recidivism? Maybe.
Also, in some states convicted felons are not permitted to vote, ever, without a pardon from the governor (a pardon from the president of the U.S. is necessary if the person was convicted of a federal crime). And they can’t ever own a firearm again. Why not give these folks a goal to work toward? Perhaps, something like restoring their rights after staying out of trouble, maintaining a job, giving to the community, etc. for a period of five years after their release. Maybe clear their records after ten years of exemplary behavior? Living with a dark cloud over one’s head cannot be good for the mind and self-esteem.
My questions for you are: Should felons be forgiven for their crimes once they’ve paid their debt to society? Should there be a point when they’re able to have their rights restored, an act that would go a long way toward restoring their dignity?
I’m anxious to hear your opinions.
I am also from the South.
I read the article link about voting that Elena posted and the poll tax kept both black and white people from voting. The article is about times past, not present day. I don’t for one second think racism is alive in voting today. I do think racism is alive, in people of ALL skin color. I’ve witnessed white people saying racist things and I’ve witnessed black people saying racist things.
America cannot move forward looking in the rearview mirror. The past, for all it’s horror and tragedy, cannot be changed. Those stumbling blocks, however, can be laid down and used as stepping stones to a better future.
I believe that if a person, no matter what the color of their skin, breaks the law and commits a crime that warrants jail or prison time, then that’s where they belong.
BUT, for those who realize they’ve done wrong and want to change and become a law-abiding citizen, I do not believe their past should be held over their head. I think they should have all their rights restored.
That’s my two cents anyway.
Carolina – I worked as a police officer in the south. During that time, I had the opportunity to do quite a bit of undercover drug work in both Virginia and North Carolina. Some of the areas I worked topped the charts for the highest teen pregnancy rates, lowest ranking education systems, and highest unemployment numbers. They also had some of the highest numbers of alcohol sales, drug crimes, and at the time, Richmond, Va. had the highest murder rate per capita in the country. I believe a lack of education, poverty, and unemployment are direct factors of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcohol sales, and crime. The result – a larger prison population.
I also believe the recidivism rate is high, because former prisoners have no brass ring for which to reach – no light at the end of the tunnel. With no, or at best, a slim chance of ever having the stigma of being a criminal removed from their record (or at least having some or all of their rights restored after serving their time and a period of extremely good behavior), many simply give up and return to crime as a source of income. It’s difficult to turn a life around while trying to support a family by working part time as a pick up person at a Goodwill store (Goodwill hires many, many ex-offenders). I know, I know. They should have thought about it before they committed their crimes. But looking backward doesn’t always change the future.
I’m a frequent reader, and appreciate the information posted in this blog. Today’s article is of particular interest since I’ve long decried a system that locks humans away in what often turns out to be a lawless environment. And then, without rehabilitation or the correction the correctional system name promises, tosses them on the street to make due. Changes are needed.
However, I am dismayed by Elena’s comment that southerners find the prison system “a good way to keep ‘others’ from voting”. I am what Deborah Ford calls a GRIT (Girl Raised in the South, darlin’). I do not deny prejudice of any type exists-it always has and sadly, always will no matter what the color of skin or region people live in (even at this moment, I’m filled with offense by a comment directed toward my people.) But never in my life, even having put up with the acerbic tongues of the racists I have had the misery of meeting, have I ever heard this.
I do not know the variables that contribute to the south’s higher prison population. Lack of adequate legal representation? Gang activity? That and more? The weather may play a part as well.
Weather? Don’t laugh. I recall a San Antonio host’s comment about how the city enjoyed a weekend without a single murder. Why? Thirteen inches of snow had fallen, closing down the city. The south has plenty of warm days and an abundance of sunshine. More days in which to find mischief. More days in which law enforcement personnel—bless their hearts–can do their jobs and remove offenders from the street. As a southerner, I would attribute this factor to the prison population rate before I would accuse citizens and our fine law enforcement agencies of conspiring to separate people from their vote.
SZ – I agree. If someone is on supervised release they should pay all or part of the expenses related to their home confinement. Actually, I believe that system is already in place in most areas. This also includes halfway houses. Inmates in those facilities are allowed to work, visit family, shop, visit gyms for exercise, take walks in the community, and attend worship services. However, they must pay room and board to the state or private company running the home. If they don’t, they’re sent back to prison to complete the remaining portion of their sentences.
* Supervised release is part of the actual prison sentence.
Oh, Madoff? When he’s convicted I say lock him up and take away his possessions just like they’d do to people who don’t have money. However, I believe he’s out on bond, which means he gets to stay at home until trial. Unfortunately, in his case home just happens to be somewhere really, really nice.
I looked at both articles, Elena, and all I wish to point out is that these both seem to be written about things that took place forty years ago. While issues like this are often far reaching, with consequences that can last a long time, I’m not so sure these are common practices today.
Sheila – Normally, when a prisoner is released from custody early they’re not simply dumped out onto the street free and clear. They’re still required to report to probation or parole officers for their full period of supervised release. If they screw up they go back in to finish their sentence.
Besides, I’d much rather they release non-violent, first time offenders to probation than to allow real bad guys – robbers and rapists – to remain on the outside because a pot smoker is taking their bed space. Who would you rather sit next to on the train, a guy who cheated on his taxes, or the guy who broke into your neighbor’s house?
Well I think the pot smokers, non violent should be offered to do home time, at their expense, not mine.
Sadly, the Madoff case alone is showing the American public that the justice system is in severe need of repair. Or maybe I am incredible stupid when I comes to the law. I do not understand a crime of that magnitude, albeit non violent, allows a man to stay in his castle.
Will someone please explain to me why, if a person has been duly tried and convicted for a crime and sentenced according to official guidelines, he can be released early because there’s no room in the prisons? Doesn’t this make a mockery of the law?
Here is an article about the national closing of state and federal residential institutions for those who needed help to live.
The only people not included were those who were so compromised physically and/or mentally that they could not exist without constant care. They were brought to one or two facilities which meant that those who had been put in hospitals near their families no longer could get visits from their families.
The idea was to “mainstream” those who were in mental institutions because they were retarded, or multiply handicapped. Unfortunately it went way too far, and wound up including residental facilities for substance abusers.
The worst part of it was that there were totally insufficient plans in place to help the people released and many became street people. There were places set up for those who needed medication to go and get their medication every day, but for the most part they were not capable of remembering to go.
It was a nightmare, that still has not been addressed.
Arresting someone to keep them from voting is rather commonplace and ‘understood’ rather than talked about. Here is a fairly comprehensive article:
Very frequently an African American man who stirs things up with the aim of helping his people, such as running for public office winds up in jail. Takes him out of the running for good.
I was not involved in any of this as a probation officer, but as a citizen. It was extremely dangerous work – people with power do not voluntarily give any of it up.
Interesting subject matter. I did have a couple of questions for Elena, though.
Elena, I was interested in a comment in your first paragraph in which you wrote: “In my experience there are two main reasons for the larger prison population in the south. One sadly is racial – it’s a good way to keep ‘others’ from voting … ”
I was struck by this because, while I am not from the south, I can honestly say that in all my 30+ years in the criminal justice system, I’ve never heard anyone make a comment about arresting or jailing or sentencing someone to keep them from voting.
You also mentioned in your 4th paragraph: “especially after the entire nation emptied residential facilities for the profoundly physically and/or developmentally disabled population onto the streets.”
To what event or series of events do you refer?
Well said, Elena.
This is a national tragedy. In my experience there are two main reasons for the larger prison population in the south. One sadly is racial – it’s a good way to keep ‘others’ from voting, among other nasty reasons.
The other is the almost total lack of social services to help, especially males, who due to mental/emotional/physical health need a lot of support. These men wind up in jail, frequently for their own protection, get no help, and as you mentioned, when they get out there is no support for them.
My open case load as a probation officer was somewhere between 400 and 600 men. I inherited most of them, and they kept coming. On a good day I could meet with two of them. By the time I left, I still hadn’t been in touch with most of them.
My guess is that about 2/3rds of my case load never belonged in jail. But, especially after the entire nation emptied residential facilities for the profoundly physically and/or developmentally disabled population onto the streets, it was inevitable that many would wind up in jail. If for no other reason, to keep them from freezing to death sleeping rough.
As a nation we are incredibly inhumane to those who need a variety of support to have a decent life. Which IMHO includes those who have served their time and would prefer to never come back.