Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Ex-Felon Proposes `New Way' for Prisons

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Ex-Felon Proposes `New Way' for Prisons

Article excerpt

Lawyer James Hamm thinks of the U.S. prison system as a sock turned inside out. He wants to turn it right side out.

American prisons are defective and dysfunctional, he said. They're run on economies of scale that produce recidivism. The system is unable to handle large numbers of unmotivated offenders and lacks the "brains and resources" to control prison gangs and institutional violence. It operates on an "extremely limited" mission statement: Keep them in until they've done their time, then turn them loose, he said.

Hamm ought to know. At 26 he committed a drug-related homicide and spent nearly 18 years in an Arizona prison. "I decided to plead guilty and take responsibility. Everyone uses that phase, but no one knows what it means. I had to figure my way through it," he told NCR.

"Figuring it out" for Hamm involved getting a degree in sociology while inside, as well as learning Jungian analytic psychology and studying the I Ching. Jung's psychology and the ancient Chinese book of changes "dovetailed for me," Hamm said. "My goal was to get out of prison. My goal was not to let prison embitter me."

Hamm was also the beneficiary of the work of Ellis MacDougal, "the greatest director of the Arizona Department of Corrections," Hamm said. During MacDougal's tenure (1978-83), Hamm said he saw his prison go from a "murder and men's club" to a place where riots, stabbings and shootings rarely occurred. MacDougal broke up cliques of inmates, guards and administrators, Hamm said. "He fired people."

Hamm's luck came next through Donna Leone, a justice of the peace who in 1983 founded a prisoners' rights group, Middle Ground Prison Reform. The organization operates as a resource for people seeking information on prisons. Hamm became Leone's source of knowledge on the inside.

Hamm admits they were a good team from the start: "She doesn't take no for an answer, and I don't give up. …

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