Humanity on Hold

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By Keith Dauch

I stood on the balcony overlooking Central Connecticut State University’s Alumni Hall as officials from the state’s criminal justice system gathered for a symposium on criminal justice reform. This year marked the sixth meeting of the Building Bridges conference series, focusing on Connecticut re-entry policies. Over the years, the Building Bridges meetings have discussed re-entry concerns like the far-reaching effects of incarcerating women and the issues faced by children of incarcerated parents, thus allowing for a discussion on how the criminal justice system can be improved on both a local and national level. On January 14th I waited to hear one particular presentation that would reveal alternative approaches to incarceration.

The European-American Prison Project is an experimental project funded by the California based Prison Law Project, with assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ), a national nonprofit organization that works with local and federal government to improve the justice system. The project aims to introduce participants to extremely different correctional practices in order to provide a broader context to the discussion on correctional reform. Sara Sullivan, Senior Program Associate at the VIJ, and Steve Chanenson, Chair of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission and Law Professor at Villanova University, presented the project’s findings to a diverse group of state legislators, law enforcement officials, business leaders, and other community members. As they began their presentation, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of electronic lights of iPads, iPhones and BlackBerrys among the constant murmur of conversation; soft laughter could be heard when one of the speakers pointed out the more unusual differences between the American and European correctional systems, such as Corrections Officers knocking before entering an inmate’s cell.

Despite the noise, one table in the front held a group of men and women who stayed rooted and quiet, paying close attention to the presentations. They were ex-offenders. I felt connected to them as they listened for hope, and I, as a former Corrections Officer, for redemption. I understood why they listened so intently, feeling the burden of uncertainty and wondering if their criminal records would prevent them from getting good jobs and housing opportunities.

In February 2013, a group of justice officials from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania toured prison facilities in Germany and the Netherlands. According to the VIJ report, “The goal was to expose project participants, through firsthand experience, to radically different correctional systems and practices.” And they were not let down. The average incarceration rate in Germany is 79 per 100,000, and 82 per 100,000 in the Netherlands. In the United States, it is approximately 716 per 100,000. According to Chanenson, one of the reasons for this monumental difference in incarceration rates relates to divergent definitions of crimes and judicial practices when dealing with youth, addicts or the mentally ill.

A particularly unique difference is that the European correctional system is modeled on resocialization and rehabilitation in all aspects of prison life. Both the German and Dutch systems are built on these ideas. The VIJ’s report says, “The sole aim of incarceration [in the German and Dutch prison system] is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility, free of crime, upon release, requiring that prison life be as similar to life in the community and organized in such a way as to facilitate reintegration into society.” Recidivism, while almost impossible to compare between Europe and the U.S. due to alternative definitions of base populations, shows the effectiveness of this strategy. The VIJ’s report says, “Recidivism does not have a significant impact on [other countries’] prison population rates.” In other words, recidivism does not add a significant cost for the European prisons studied. However, according to a study of forty states in the U.S. by the VIJ, “The cumulative cost of prisons in 2010 was $39 billion.” With an average cost of incarceration of about $34,000 per inmate, the high rate of recidivism added to the cost of new offenders entering the system ensures a continually high correctional budget.

In contrast, a 2012 study on recidivism in Connecticut found that within five years of their release, 79 percent of offenders were re-arrested. This may correlate with the fact that the U.S. prison system focuses more on punishment than on rehabilitation. In a punishment minded prison system, an offender’s liberties are taken away upon incarceration and the offender loses all aspects of freedom and privacy. In the majority of cells, two people live in a six by eight foot area. Bunk beds are riveted to the walls and mattresses cushion the metal slabs, some with very little stuffing and others with an excess making them lumpy and uncomfortable. Each inmate receives two sheets and one blanket, no matter the season. Here in Connecticut, cold air seeps into the cells during the winter months and inmates scramble to get their hands on extra blankets—even one small thing to help them feel more comfortable, more human.

In Europe, the fight against recidivism starts at the beginning of an offender’s introduction to the justice system. In order to ensure that an offender is not reincarcerated, the European system works to avoid imprisoning people in the first place. In some cases, Dutch and German prosecutors rely on “diversions” for offenders instead of jail time, meaning that an offender pays a sum of money to the treasury. While diversions are usually limited to minor offenses in Germany, they include many crimes that the U.S. considers felonies, such as burglary, aggravated assault and many drug crimes. In other cases, offenders are required to do community service. If a sentence is suspended,
meaning the prison sentence is only served if the offender does not complete the requirements of the suspension, and community service is attached, the work must be done in a way that will benefit the community as a whole, such as environmental work, health care, or social or cultural work. While 79 percent of Germany’s offenders receive a suspended sentence, as do 56 percent of offenders in the Netherlands, only 21 percent of U.S. offenders receive a suspended sentence.

For crimes resulting in a prison sentence, the European system sharply contrasts the sentencing practices of the United States. 98 percent of Dutch offenders serve four years or less, and only 1 percent of offenders serve more than four years. In the United States there has been an increase in sentencing length, with 10 percent of the total inmate population serving a life sentence. This increase in sentencing length in
the U.S. is due to laws passed in Congress, such as the “tough on crime” laws centered on punishment. The VIJ says that the European prison system’s principal goal of incarceration “is to help inmates lead more independent, productive lives in society once released.” The European system works to accomplish this through shorter sentences focused on the offender’s life after prison.

Prison staff, for example, has a large impact on the successful reintegration of an offender after a short prison stay. In order to help offenders with successful reintegration into society, the VIJ report states, “Respect for prisoners’ privacy is practiced as a matter
of human dignity.” In the European system, inmates carry keys for their own cells and while officers also have cell keys, they must knock before entering any offender’s cell, allowing the offender to retain a sense of privacy and dignity.

Another aspect of the German and Dutch prisons that allows offenders to retain their rights is found in the disciplinary process. Any offender has the right to appeal negative administrative disciplines, and if reversed, the offender may be entitled to damages. In the U.S., specifically in Connecticut prisons, an inmate will have an opportunity to plead his or her case if he or she received a disciplinary report, but normally will receive some type of sanctions such as loss of phone calls or visits rather than damages.

Since the prison staff has such a large influence on the ways offenders reintegrate into society, Correctional Officers in Germany undergo rigorous training for two years: twelve months of theoretical education and another twelve months focused on the practical side of training. The VIJ report says that the training includes “criminal law and self-defense as well as constitutional law, educational theory, psychology, social education, stress and conflict management, and communicating with prisoners.” The length and depth of this training allows the officers in the German and Dutch prison systems to understand the person instead of just looking at the offender as an inmate.

The training received by the officers in the European prisons prepares them to take on an important role in the rehabilitation process. European Correctional Officers talk to and treat the inmates with respect to help them become used to normal interactions. The VIJ explains that inmates are given plenty of opportunities for personal expression and are even allowed to choose their own clothing and make their own food. These basic things give offenders the best opportunities to become successful citizens upon re-entry to society, and all stem from the focus on rehabilitation and the diverse and lengthy staff training.

The training in the United States is much different, as I can attest to from personal experience. Our training instills in officers an “us vs. them” mentality and a sense of power and dominance. It also tends to solidify the distrust of authority in the inmate. In my twelve-weeks of training, I learned basic self-defense, handcuffing techniques, and escort techniques for both a passive and an aggressive inmate. We drilled on cell-extraction techniques (in other words, the safe and quick means of removing a belligerent offender from a prison cell), and spent classroom time going over DOC regulations. We heard personal stories from our instructors on how dangerous a prison environment can be, and were told that our best friend in a facility was the word “no.” Unlike in the European prison system, the focus of our training was not on creating an environment that would help the inmates reform, but rather to maintain control over them.

The European-American Prison Delegation will now work on implementing changes to the U.S. prison system with an understanding that cultural differences and varied definitions of law will restrict some of the changes that can be made. They plan on looking at sentencing policies and bringing in some of the European practices to hopefully improve the rehabilitation practices in our own country’s prisons. Initially, they will focus on normalization policies for inmates as seen in the greater freedoms of the Dutch and German facilities, such as allowing more personal property and providing earlier access to reentry services. The delegation is also striving to work out better strategies for special populations, such as youths, addicts and the mentally ill.

Germany relies on a practice of minimum intervention when dealing with youthful offenders, with priority given to diversions whenever possible. The country incarcerates all mentally ill offenders in psychiatric hospitals, not in prisons, so that they are cared for and watched over by those trained to work with their particular issues. In terms of drug offenders, both Germany and the Netherlands rely on a harm-reduction approach that emphasizes health care and prevention. It costs less to treat a drug offender in a program than to lock him or her up, especially because so many return to addiction upon release. The U.S. prison system currently acts as a revolving door through which drug offenders constantly return.

One conference participant from Georgia who traveled to Germany and the Netherlands during the February 2013 trip made a particularly profound observation. While touring a German prison, she reflected, “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.” This does not imply that we should forget the victims, but rather that we should reduce the number of victims by reducing recidivism. That is what Building Bridges is all about: recognizing and finding solutions to the issues that affect our justice system and making sure that an inmate’s sentence is truly finished when he or she steps outside of the prison walls. Offenders who have served their time should not feel as though their punishment will continue as they work to find housing and job opportunities, or that they will remain separate from the rest of society. The correctional system should work to better prepare these people for successful lives upon their release and relieve them of the stigma of
being “inmates.”

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