What a weekend in prison taught me
I spent a recent weekend in prison.
As a guest of a program that looks to address the violent daily reality of prison, I had the opportunity — over 20 hours at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution at Jessup, Md. — to reflect on such important issues as human rights, prison culture and conflict resolution.
Some two-thirds of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars are nonviolent offenders, most convicted of drug charges. But in an overcrowded prison system, where many people are serving mandatory minimum sentences, nonviolent prisoners are turning into violent ones.
The Alternatives to Violence Project is one valuable solution to try to stop this trend. Three inmate facilitators work with an outside facilitator to lead the weekend-long program. My group included 25 inmates, with an average age of about 22; all but two of the inmates were African Americans. They deal daily with terrible conditions in the prison. Their basic human rights are violated every day.
Over the weekend, our group took part in workshops, role-playing, policy discussions and more. We worked together to try to better understand our circumstances and learned how to respond in nonviolent ways. The AVP program is based on the “transforming power” concept, with core principles that help inmates make nonviolent choices when confronted with violent situations.
In a small-group exercise, each of us told of a time when we were able to avoid violence using nonviolent tactics. All three inmates in my group had amazing stories that were fresh in their memory; they face these scenarios daily. One spoke about his confrontation with a corrections officer who had neglected to sign him out to go to prayer service. When the inmate returned, he was given a “ticket” for leaving without permission. This turned into an intense debate, and the inmate recognized his emotions escalating into fury. Fortunately, the corrections officer’s superior came in, and the inmate was able to calm down and explain the situation.
The AVP program, which began in 1975 in New York, has been shown to dramatically reduce violence in prison and repeat offenses once inmates return home. It has expanded into high schools, community centers, colleges and refugee camps.
Since my visit to Jessup, I think a lot about a 19-year-old inmate who is serving 10 years after his second conviction for dealing drugs (both nonviolent offenses). This young man has lived much of his life behind bars, and our society has failed him.
Of course, those who commit a crime should serve the appropriate sentence. The bigger question, though, is where should a teenager serve that sentence, especially for a nonviolent offense? When we put nonviolent offenders in the same institution with violent offenders, what do we expect to happen?
Society expects an inmate, often with little education, to navigate extremely tough situations. Many inmates landed in prison right out of low-performing schools, and, to make matters worse, their chances of rehabilitation are slim because they do not receive quality educational opportunities or resources to better themselves while serving their sentences.
The prison I visited was old, with narrow hallways and small cells. There was constant noise — somebody screaming or a gate opening or closing. There was also an overbearing presence of authority, including regular ID checks of all the inmates. Crowding and cost-cutting are huge issues. The prison recently eliminated Friday visiting hours and reduced gym rights to four days a week. There is a basic GED program, but the government cut the college education program. Many of the men in my group were frustrated with the effects of the cost-cutting. One inmate wanted to transfer to a prison where more educational opportunities might be available.
These inmates don’t want to get into more trouble. They struggle with the concepts of nonviolence because they are confronted daily with violence — more than any of us can fathom. They mostly don’t want more trouble because prison is an awful place and each inmate wants to go home. To go home quickly, they must avoid being issued tickets and participate in programs such as AVP.
For inmates, pursuing nonviolence in prison means turning the entire system on its head. I learned that the inmate AVP facilitators were highly respected precisely because they reject the violence that surrounds them. If an inmate can master the tools of nonviolence, then he can likely reduce the length of his sentence.
I walked away from the prison with a belief that locking people up for long periods for nonviolent offenses is a danger to society. We need to concentrate on fixing the prisons, and we need to do everything possible to provide help to nonviolent offenders. Society should commit to ensuring that those who serve time in prison come out better than they went in. We must commit to ending arbitrary minimum sentencing, helping rehabilitate those in the system, providing education and job training and, most of all, providing hope for the inmates.
Participating in the AVP program will help me identify and support solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline. Education is a key to helping solve this problem. We must demand that every child be given a fair chance and that our schools (from pre-kindergarten through college) be high-quality and accessible.
I look forward to being a part of the solution and working on quality schools and quality communities. And you can be sure that the next time a bill before me on the D.C. Council includes criminal sanctions, I’ll look at it in a new light, because I have seen up close what it means to require someone to spend time in jail.
The writer, an independent, is an at-large member of the D.C. Council.