View from the Inside: Inmate Study Group Gives Advice on Solving US Crime Problem
David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
IN the heated national debate over solutions to crime and violence in society, should we listen to the suggestions of Ted Garrety, Robert Lena, Vernard Ansari, and Ken Gauthier?
And what about Robert Pacheco, Arthur Legge, Robert Gaumond, Robert McClary, and Toni Olszewski? Do they want more prisons built to house America's worst felons for life? Should drugs be legalized? Can rehabilitation take place?
These men are inmates at Norfolk Correctional Institution, a medium-security state prison outside of Boston. They are part of a unique master's degree program sponsored by Boston University (BU) in the prison and taught by Paule Verdet, a retired sociology professor.
"These are intelligent men. Most have college degrees, some earned before prison," Ms. Verdet says.
According to Ann Marchitelli, the principal of the adult learning center at Norfolk, 73 percent of the inmates enter the prison with skills below the eighth-grade level in reading and math.
The range of crimes of these inmate-students includes murder, sex offenses, manslaughter, and drug offenses. Sentences are from double life to less than three years. Most of society would conclude that these convicted felons, with or without academic skills, got what they deserved. The men broke laws, were tried, convicted, and sentenced. The justice system works.
But in a larger context, US prisons have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, plus a 67 percent recidivism rate.
Many penologists conclude that the US justice system, including rehabilitation, is not working. They say the pillars of society - families, schools, and churches - are not reckoning with the wrenching social changes contributing to crime. Despite increased law- enforcement efforts, tougher laws, and hundreds of costly new prisons, crime rates remain high. Public safety has not increased.
Will more prisons reduce crime and provide safety? "No," says Mr. Garrety, seated in the Norfolk classroom. "Prisons are not held accountable for what they don't do. It's called the `department of corrections,' which implies rehabilitation. But a prison is an ineffective bureaucracy protecting the status quo instead of innovating. It puts out defective goods, yet still survives."
To lower recidivism rates, Garrety urges, make prison operations private. The goal has to be to reduce recidivism by teaching marketable skills to inmates, perhaps with business partnerships to train employees for specific companies. "When prisons are under fiscal pressure," he says, "rehabilitation programs are usually eliminated."
Mr. Gaumond says he and others in the class offered to help other inmates earn their high school equivalency degrees. …