Prison overcrowding from an inmate's perspective

Flickr photo by Amanda Slater. http://www.flickr.com/photos/pikerslanefarm/3395439630/

Behind the walls of San Quentin, prison inmate Richard Gilliam has been sharing his commentaries with us as a Community Correspondent. Today he’s voicing his thoughts on prison overcrowding.

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RICHARD GILLIAM: Today in the United States, 2.2 million people are behind bars. That’s nearly one in 50 people, excluding the children and the elderly. This averages out to 714 per 100,000. Nearly 7 million people are currently under the supervision of a correctional apparatus, be it jail, prison, parole, probation or some sort of community correctional facility. Our incarceration rate of 714 per 100,000 is five to 12 times the rate of Western Europe or Japan. This is according to Marie Gottschalk, professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Blacks, who make up about 13% of the U.S. population, comprise more than half of all people in prison. So while the overall incarceration rate is 714 per 100,000, the rate for black males in the United States is actually 6,838 per 100,000.

Think about this: in California at the current estimated cost of about $50,000 per year to house each prisoner, the tax payers are paying significantly more than if all those men and women were placed on public assistance. We can’t afford to continue this trend. School budgets have repeatedly been cut, spending on social programs has steadily dwindled, money for fire and police departments has been slashed, and local and state governments are wrestling with huge deficits. Some of this can be attributed to the billions of dollars it costs to house long term prisoners, and in California, the recidivism rate has hovered around 80% for years, meaning the same men and women keep coming back.

It’s time the public demand a better return on their tax dollars. In the area of corrections, that means not simply locking offenders away for extended periods of time – it means using the time wisely. Prisons shouldn’t be society’s dark secret. People should know and care about what goes on inside them. They should care about how prisoners are treated, and they should demand that all prisoners receive a basic education, meaning an attainment of a GED and a useable job skill, as well as comprehensive drug treatment. The public should demand that housing and employment resources be available to parolees who want them.

Now, I know that many in society wrestle with the idea of indulging prisoners. And I understand: criminals are bad people. But the reality is that even though you have every reason to condemn and loathe the criminal you sent to prison, you’d better take an interest in the welfare of the men and women coming out. That’s my take on rehabilitation.