As we enter the new year, I ask myself: what is it I really want to see? In the United States, 2.2 million other people and I have just spent our New Years’ Eves behind bars. What I want to see is reform of the justice system, especially prisons.
With mass incarceration now a popular subject in the news and in politics, I would like to inform the public about what life is like inside the prison system, particularly for a young man like me. During my incarceration, I have watched this system that was created to help me and protect society instead destroy lives and reduce safety in our communities.
What worries me the most is that prison is not considered a place of rehabilitation. I was 16 when I came to adult prison. No matter what crime I committed, my mind was still developing. I entered the child welfare system at the age of nine and eventually went through more than twenty different placements. Here in prison, I have seen many people who were in the same programs and foster homes I was in. But the system assumes no responsibility for failing these youth.
When an individual is placed in prison, it should be so that the public can be kept safe and the offender can be rehabilitated. That is justice. Sending an individual to prison and offering few programs or rehabilitative services is not justice. I truly believe that real justice is served when an individual can realize how much his crime has affected him and the ones he loves, and then gets back out into society ready and able to function. In order for there to be safer communities, there must be safer prisons.
I have heard talk recently about ways to lower the recidivism and incarceration rates. I believe that if more rehabilitation components were brought to prisons, the recidivism rates would decline. I know everyone thinks that it is the individual’s fault for returning to prison, but the truth is that the Department of Corrections is releasing people without the basic tools needed to succeed in society. For example, one of my previous roommates was released, and when he got out he did not know how to use a computer. The majority of jobs he was applying for did not have printed applications; all the job applications were online.
And even though people are beginning to talk about reducing incarceration, it seems like no one wants to focus on the thousands of juveniles who have been charged as adults and sentenced to adult prison. In the state of New Jersey, there are no second chances for people like me, even though we were juveniles at the time of our offenses. I first entered the system at 16, charged as and considered an adult. And so I have been housed and treated as an adult, and I was sent to solitary confinement at the age of 21 for speaking up about abuse and corruption I saw within the prison.
What Needs Fixing?
I feel like the system is failing me. I know that I was sent here to be locked away from society, but I was also sent here to have my behavior corrected. I will be forty years old when I am released, and during the 25 years I must spend here there are very few things to help me become an upstanding member of society. I just want a fair chance when I get out there. I want to show people that I have changed and that I deserve a chance to live in society and function like a regular person. I realize I made a very big mistake, and I cannot change it, but I can change my future, and I believe that it starts with my earning a high-quality education and being rehabilitated.
I know that there are people who say that the public does not care about prisoners and thinks they should have nothing. I’d rather think that the public does not know what really goes on in these prisons than that it does not care. These prisons are run with taxpayer funds, and the public does have some say about where its hard-earned money is directed. The truth is that government has wasted billions of dollars getting tough on crime. Getting tough on crime has incarcerated more people for more time, causing prisons to remove or cut most of their rehabilitation components.
If I ever have a chance to talk to people who believe this or people who do not care, I would explain that most prisoners will one day return to society, and a person’s behavior when he returns from prison has a lot to do with how he was treated while incarcerated. Nowadays, prisons serve only two functions: punishment and security. But when you abuse and torture people and then release them into society, you are not protecting the community, for these men and women have families and children to go back to, and they take home the hurt as well as a lack of respect for law enforcement. I’ve seen guys that hate law enforcement, and when you live or walk in their shoes you might get an understanding of why they feel that way.
The mistreatment and dehumanizing of inmates by the system must be replaced with rehabilitation and intense counseling. In 2014, an individual who served 30 years was released from the Department of Corrections. In less than 5 days he had committed another crime, killing his mother over a small dispute. Many people would say that this individual should never have been released from prison. But there should be another question at the forefront: what was this individual doing while he was incarcerated for 30 years? How is it that someone can spend decades in prison and leave without a high school diploma or GED? We must put the rehabilitation component back into the prisons, and we must begin to do it now: in the new year.