Convict Criminology

IX. Convict Criminology Policy Recommendations

In terms of policy initiatives, convict criminology has two general orientations. First, convict criminologists wish to see a cessation of what Austin and Irwin (2001) called the “imprisonment binge” in America, which began in the 1980s and has caused the national prison population to more than double since 1990. The result has seen millions of citizens incarcerated, with immense cost to the taxpayer in terms of prison construction, operation and maintenance, overcrowded courts, overworked parole and probation authorities, and overburdened welfare agencies to which falls the task of supporting families whose primary breadwinner has been removed.

The reasons for the hike in prison numbers are well-known and have little to do with crime rates. At the base of the problem are certain elements within the mass media that exaggerate and sensationalize crime in the quest of increasing their market share of reader- or viewership. Citizens startled by the false specter of a “crime wave” are then preyed on by politicians who, trying to outbid their opponents for votes, attempt to allay public fears by promising to lock criminals up for long periods of time. Cruel sentencing laws have caused millions of petty offenders to receive extraordinarily long sentences. These laws have been complemented by the imposition of long parole periods after release, with strict conditions, rigorous monitoring, and hair-trigger violation components. By these mechanisms, released prisoners may be summarily returned to prison for supervision rule violations as trivial as having a beer, living at an unapproved address, failure to secure employment, or a bad drug test. U.S. prisons are increasingly being filled up by petty violators of this type, who, after years of crime-free liberty, can suddenly lose their jobs, marriages, and homes as a result of an unexpected visit from a gung-ho parole officer. Living with the Sword of Damocles dangling so precariously over their heads adds markedly to the stressful lives of prison parolees and decreases their ability to adjust to civil life though winning good jobs, getting married, and creating stable families.

The second orientation of the CC group concerns prison conditions themselves. Partially as a result of burgeoning prison populations, rising incarceration costs, crowded prison conditions and a thinning of resources, prison conditions have deteriorated (Ross, 2008). Budgets have tightened, and many prison programs have disappeared. An article written by Robert Martinson in 1974, which argued strongly that “nothing works” in prison reform, added weight to arguments that spending money on programs is a waste of time. This encouraged many American jurisdictions, already struggling under rising populations, to abandon programs and invest instead in expensive high-tech surveillance and security to manage prisoners. Thus, many prisons became warehouses for felons, where criminals are essentially kept in cold storage until they are paroled or their sentences expire. Unprepared for life in the real world after years of stagnation in the artificial environment of the prison, it is little wonder that so many are unable to survive on release and end up back inside.

These kinds of critical issues are the grist to the mill of the convict criminologist. Convict criminologists are committed to understanding and attempting to remedy the processes that have given the “land of the free” the largest and fasting-growing prison population in the history of the Western world. Within the context of the prison itself, they share a determination to expose and address a carceral environment that, although ostensibly created to prevent a prisoner from future offending, in fact produces social cripples whose return to a felonious lifestyle and further incarceration is virtually ensured.

In pursuit of the first objective, the CC group advocates dramatic reductions in the national prison population through a review of the kinds of crimes that get people sent to prison, shorter sentences, and an examination of the parole system. They argue for imprisonment only as a last resort for serious crimes, a return to more extensive use of diversion to community programs, and restrictions on parole length and reimprisonment for petty violations.

In pursuit of the second objective, convict criminologists support the closing of large-scale penitentiaries and reformatories where prisoners are warehoused in massive cell blocks. Over many decades, the design and operation of these “big house” prisons has dehumanized inmates and resulted in high levels of intimidation, serious assault, and sexual predation. A reduced prison population housed in smaller institutions could be accomplished by constructing or redesigning prison housing units with single cells or rooms, as is the case in many other advanced industrialized countries. In small prisons where prisoners are held in single-celled units of no more than 60, maintaining control and security is easier, and the incidence of sexual predation is close to zero. A number of European countries follow a similar model.

In addition to the preceding, legislators and policymakers need to listen carefully to prisoner complaints about bad food, old uniforms, lack of heat in winter or air-conditioning in summer, inadequate vocational and education programs, and institutional violence. The list grows longer when one takes a careful look at how these conditions contribute to prisoners being poorly prepared to reenter the community and the large number who return to prison.

Programs that were dissolved after the population boom began in the 1980s need to be reactivated. Prisoners should be provided with opportunities for better-paid institutional employment, advanced vocational training, higher education, and family skills development. Although it is true that most institutions have token programs that serve a small number of prisoners—for example, a prison may have paid jobs for 20% of its prisoners, low-tech training, a GED program, and occasional classes in life skills or group therapy— the great problem is that these services are dramatically limited in scope and availability.

Another matter that concerns convict criminologists is voting rights. The United States is one of the few advanced industrial countries that continues to deny prisoners and felons voting rights. If convicts could vote, many of the improvements suggested here might become policy, because politicians would be forced to campaign for convict votes. State and federal government will begin to address the conditions in prisons only when prisoners and felons become voters. One would not expect prisoners to be any less interested than free persons in exercising their right to vote. To the contrary, if polling booths were installed in jails and prisons, voter turnout would likely be higher than in most outside communities.

To prevent relapses into offending caused by desperation, convict criminologists advocate that prisoners released from prison should have enough “gate money” to allow them to pay for up to 3 months of rent and food. They could earn some of this money working in prison industries, with the balance provided by the state. All persons exiting correctional institutions should have clothing suitable for applying for employment, eyeglasses (if needed), and identification (social security card, state ID or driver’s license, and a copy of their institutional medical records).

The final and perhaps most controversial policy recommendation is eliminating the “snitch” system in prison (i.e., using inmates as informants). The snitch system is used by guards in old-style institutions to supplement their surveillance of convicts. It is used to control prisoners by turning them against each other and is therefore responsible for ongoing institutional violence. If our recommendations for a smaller population, single-cell housing, better food and clothing, voting rights, and well-funded institutional programming were implemented, the snitch system would become redundant. Small units are easier to manage and the demoralizing and dangerous cooptation of snitching inmates to assist in operational functions is unnecessary.