THREE CHEAP, UNCONTROVERSIAL REFORMS TO BENEFIT FAMILIES OF PRISONERS

Prison reform is important and complicated. Yet as I argued for Opportunity Lives last week, basic reforms to benefit prisoners and society needn’t be cost prohibitive or controversial. The same is true for reforms to benefit the families of prisoners.

Be under no illusions, this is a compelling national concern.

First, and most obviously, a prisoner’s family has done nothing wrong. While there may be linking factors behind an individual’s descent into criminality, such as broken homes, families are not guilty in deliberate criminal action. They are victims of crime. They must endure the emotion of a loved one incarcerated, and regret for their crimes. Families must also fill the economic void that their loved one has left — the loss of income that incarceration often imposes.

Still, there are at least three inexpensive, uncontroversial ways prison systems could be reformed to benefit prisoner families.

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Most important, families need greater support at the moment their loved one enters prison to when he or she is released. Here, there is much more that could be done to arrange family support groups and online briefing packets. Families must also find support at the moment their loved one is released. Consider that if an individual has served a sentence of more than a year, their opportunity to quickly re-enter the lawful workforce will be impinged.

But consider how an online mentoring community that seeks to train former prisoners in trades or skills could afford them lifelong employability. At the margin, the key to fighting recidivism is alternate opportunity. If, for example, an individual believes he or she can provide for themselves and others without the need to return to criminal action, he or she is much more likely to rehabilitate. And the family is the foundation for this better choice. We should increase family access to educational materials — relevant to a loved one’s incarceration study program — while that individual is in prison. In doing so, on release, the individual will have a base of family understanding and purpose with which to engage. With public libraries offering free access to books, such a proposal would be affordable and would interlink a parole officer with prisoner and family. Conservatism must be about the expansion of opportunity, not simply the defense of success.

Conservatism must be about the expansion of opportunity, not simply the defense of success
Second, families must be held in higher regard by prison authorities and broader government services. Right now, families face unacceptable challenges in contacting relevant prison authorities and loved ones. In part, this is because corrections websites are often hard to navigate and useful information is hard to find. Reforming those information services must be a priority. Simultaneously, corrections leaders should make sure that their staffs treat families of prisoners as citizens rather than criminals-by-association.

This is the United States: our government is designed to serve the people in moral cause. But there’s a broader problem here. While most outgoing mail from prisoners is paid for by the state, families face bureaucratic absurdity in trying to send letters to loved ones. At present, far too many corrections facilities will reject a letter because of one small mistake — such as a misspelling or a prisoner’s ID code in the wrong location. While prison staffs do invaluable work preventing criminal entities from using coded letters to communicate with compatriots behind bars, where a prisoner has been codified as low-risk, his or her loved ones deserve a more flexible mail process. We need better bureaucracies.

Finally, families must be better served in the field of canteen allowance transfers. Because most prisons provide a poor quality of food — often very high in carbohydrates and very low in protein — families will send money to prisoners to improve their diet. Yet today, absent a facility to provide canteen payments directly to corrections authorities, families must pay an 8 to 10 percent fee on transfers through private cutout organizations. This is extortion. Although corrections agencies must control taxpayer costs for food provision and so forth, allowing the extortion of families in a closed-marketplace is outrageous. Put another way, if a corrections facility is to provide a basic supply of food, it must also allow private individuals to compensate that decision with ease. Taxing families for the sins of their loved ones is morally foul.

Again, I fully respect why comprehensive justice reform is necessarily complicated. Yet the United States is founded upon the principle of equal justice under the law. The guilty are punished, and the innocent kept free. Today, however, in areas irrelevant to the government’s need to control costs for taxpayers, families of prisoners are being abandoned to disinterest. In that abandonment, their rights as citizens are being unduly infringed.