A better way to talk about prison reform

…an expensive way of making bad people worse.

Behind bars…sort of is one of the best descriptions of the myths of our modern imprisonment model I’ve read from traditional media.

The questions posed are ones that are raised by activists and those opposed to how our criminal justice system operates. Sadly, these questions rarely get substantive answers from policymakers.

  • What’s the point of prison? (Punishment? Rehabilitation? Humiliation?)
  • How do we define & measure a prison’s effectiveness?
  • Has increased imprisonment lead to improved quality of life for those not in prison?
3 R's: Reduce, Remove, Remake

3 R's: Reduce, Remove, Remake

Re-framing the debate: Reduce, Remove, Remake

Americans are viewing more and more issues through the lens of their wallets. Perhaps this can work for rethinking prisons too.

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, made progress on prison reform in his jurisdiction in large part by framing sensible incarceration policy as a matter of fiscal responsibility. The premise is that a city needs a consistent tax base to function, and people who are being warehoused are not paying taxes. It’s a great example of using a seemingly centrist frame (“fiscal responsibility”) to execute on a progressive agenda (“prison reform”). Prisons like the one featured in this article cost no more to construct, yet they save the cost of inmate humiliation & dehumanization. Those of us not in prison feel in that cost terms of recidivism.

Perhaps this can work on a broader scale if this is adjusted slightly. Instead of focusing solely on “let’s quickly make them productive taxpayers again,” we should broaden that to the following “Reduce,┬áRemove, Remake” approach:

As a society responsible for the protection of its citizens, we will raise everyone’s quality of life by insisting that we reduce the motivations for crime, remove the policy loopholes and resource lapses that allow crime to persist, and remake our prison system into one that benefits society more than it costs it.

Doing this takes political courage on behalf of citizens, activists, and policymakers, but it can be done. Let’s transform our system away from being “an expensive way to make bad people worse” into “an investment in our shared security and well-being.”

One Love. One II.

Photo Credit: photoaskew on Flickr

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

6 responses to “A better way to talk about prison reform”

  1. Brandon says :

    Interesting you post this. I just had my class listen to Angela Davis’ lecture “The Prison Industrial Complex.” We had a great discussion surrounding it.

  2. Brandon says :

    Wow, I bet. i would love to see Angela Davis in person. It actually went better than I thought it would. This is an extremely conservative environment. However, my students are nontraditional and working class. Most of them took the lecture to heart and it opened up discussions and dialogue about their own knowledge and experiences of the prison industrial complex, the welfare system, and interactions with established authority. It was a very nice conversation.

  3. chad says :

    Timely contribution. I’d invite you all to look at the Fall conference of the Drug Policy Alliance, the International Drug Policy Reform Conference at http://www.reformconference.org. A biannual gathering, it will touch on many of the issues you raise as well as the criminalization of immigration, the border and the Southwest. This year it is in Albuquerque from Nov 12-14. (i gotta give thanks to Harlyn for pointing me your way, superspade)

  4. ELAINE MECCHELLA says :

    I am trying to see if something can be done about sentencing
    productive men& women to incarceration,instead of allowing
    them to continue to be taxpaying workers with House Arrest.,
    after their work day is over,

  5. CC says :

    Timely contribution. I’d invite you all to look at the Fall conference of the Drug Policy Alliance, the International Drug Policy Reform Conference at http://www.reformconference.org. A biannual gathering, it will touch on many of the issues you raise as well as the criminalization of immigration, the border and the Southwest. This year it is in Albuquerque from Nov 12-14. (i gotta give thanks to Harlyn for pointing me your way, superspade)

  6. Garlin II says :

    I’m curious as to what questions and conclusions came from that discussion. Seeing Angela Davis speak at Michigan when I was there was one of the most memorable guest lectures I attended.

    One Love. One II.

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