Three Cheap, Uncontroversial Reforms to Benefit Prisoners and Society

Three Cheap, Uncontroversial Reforms to Benefit Prisoners and Society

Criminal justice reform is rising on the national agenda. And with various ideas across the political spectrum — from President Obama to the Koch Brothers — the tenor of discussion is encouraging. Navigating the emotion of crime and punishment is not easy: durable reform won’t come overnight. Nevertheless, there are ideas that could be implemented without legislative action. And the best of them could be introduced widely, rapidly and affordably.

Here are three cheap uncontroversial ideas to benefit America’s incarcerated citizens:


Prisons should make visits by relatives easier

Separated from society in an environment defined by aggression and boredom, it is easy for prisoners to lose hope. Regular family contact can ameliorate these concerns. Yet today, too many corrections systems make it difficult for family members to visit loved ones.

Consider that if you speak to someone who has a relative in prison, they’re likely to tell you three things. First, gaining approval for visits is complicated and appeals for rejected visitation rights are often lethargic and unpredictable. Second, time allotments for visits are short and subject to the temperamental whims of prison staff. Third, the personal interaction allowed during prison visits is often unnecessarily impersonal.

Of course, prison guards have just concerns about visitors smuggling contraband. As such, relatives should be prepared for comprehensive searches. And those who choose to smuggle goods to inmates — even legal items (which facilitate prison gang trading schemes used to manipulate other prisoners) — should be prosecuted without delay.

That said, prisons should also make it easier for certain non-relatives to visit prisoners — including parolee visitors. With many prisoners having close friends who have previously been incarcerated, there should be a waiver process for wardens to allow ex-convict visitation rights. At present, some corrections systems simply bar all ex-cons from visitation rights. A waiver process would allow warden discretion as to whether a visitor would be positive to both prisoner and prison well being. Remember, many ex-convicts have abandoned criminality and could guide their friends to redemption.


Prisons should offer greater merit-reward opportunities for prisoners who use their time wisely

While corrections systems have punishment programs such as solitary confinement and privilege restrictions for misconduct, few have reciprocally developed incentive programs. Increasing prisoner wages for in-prison work would help encourage positive behavior, but it is an expensive and thus controversial option. As an immediate substitute, corrections systems could incentivize labor-skilled and educated prisoners to teach other prisoners.

And for those who are willing to attend classes, the incentives could include quicker eligibility for transfer to lower-security/residential facilities, and access to privileges such as television. Regardless, this approach would proffer two immediate benefits for prisoners. First, it would put individuals on a path to find gainful employment on release (either in trade skills or professional work). Second, it would give prisoners a schedule and purpose in their daily lives. This would help promote prison stability and inmate well being.


Corrections agencies should provide greater help to prisoners seeking to leave gangs

For a start here, gang leaders must be made to feel the consequences for intimidating and manipulating younger prisoners. Corrections staff should thus be directed to increase their monitoring of gang leadership via overt and covert means, and remove leaders from cell blocks as necessary.

This hints at a broader crisis: in America today, too many gang leaders and their lieutenants hold control over the lives of prisoners and the internal processes of a prison. This kind of behavior should receive rapid and long trips to solitary confinement. That’s because, where impressionable and vulnerable younger prisoners are inculcated into a gang structure, their chances of successfully re-entering society are dramatically reduced.

At the same time, prison officials must do more to encourage prisoners to leave gangs. After all, at present, most incarcerated gang members face two choices: either isolate themselves from a gang and face retribution, or enter protective custody and face restrictive opportunities and practices. Former gang members who have chosen a different path with their lives can also play a key role. As the first episode of Opportunity Lives “Comeback” series shows, those who have lived the gang life are best placed to guide others towards better futures.

Ultimately, none of these ideas are magic elixirs. Yet, by blending simplicity with affordability, assisting prisoners who want better lives and punishing those who would deny them that chance, prison reform is a worthy objective.


Tom Rogan is a Senior Contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.