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Why Prisons Don’t Work

David Rothenberg
November 5, 2014

The Founder of the Fortune Society Describes "One of the Most Expensive Failures in Our History"

by David Rothenberg From the Autumn 2014 issue of Jewish Currents PrisonTHERE ARE TWO MAIN REASONS WHY PRISONS DON'T WORK: public indifference and cruelly wasted time. For the most part, the public doesn’t care about rehabilitation, but about sending the bad guys away and punishing them for their evil deeds. We’ve seen these “offenders” on endless television crime shows, which identify them by their crimes and rarely reveal any other facet of their being. While 98 percent of the people we incarcerate will return to society, our preoccupation is with sending them off to be punished, without regard for their emotional and psychological condition. The result is a recidivism rate of nearly two thirds within three years. Our society pays a heavy price for this failure: With more than one out of a hundred adult Americans imprisoned at any given moment (the highest rate in the world), at an annual cost of close to $30,000 per prisoner, our prison system is one of the most expensive failures in history. MANY INMATES TODAY have severe drug problems. The 1300 percent increase in the state prison incarceration rate since 1980 is largely attributable, after all, to the “War on Drugs.” Yet prisons hardly deal with the reasons people turned to drugs, much less to crime. There are scattered programs inside, but hour-long activities with outside volunteers once a week can hardly undo the damage of a mind-numbing, often violent prison ambiance. Drugs and alcohol are, in fact, readily available in most prisons, and many inmates endure, as they endured outside, by getting high. Let me cite some examples of men and women I’ve met who have shaken their addictions but still have deep wounds from their time in prison. As residents of The Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), a haven for homeless former prisoners, they are among the many who are fighting to reclaim their lives. Thomas Jones’ home was dysfunctional, to say the least: His mother was going mad and his father had started another family. At the age of 7, Thomas began hustling and stealing for food and lodging. He was locked up at 10, which began a pattern that lasted for the next twenty-five years. Getting high was his way of surviving. Thomas never went to school, and by the time he arrived in prison as an adult, he was addicted and illiterate. Nevertheless, with the few dollars he earned performing menial prison tasks, he bought himself a dictionary. With the help of another prisoner he began to teach himself to read. After his last stay on Riker’s Island, he was sent to a public shelter, another institution that fails to break the cycle of addiction, incarceration, and homelessness. Finally, a social worker referred him to The Castle, where released prisoners have access to crisis intervention, needs assessment, counseling, various forms of housing, literacy training, GED preparation, employment services, outpatient substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, legal services, and healthy cooking and nutrition workshops. With access to all of this and more, Thomas had an opportunity to confront his past and contemplate a future free of drugs, crime, and prison. After five years of study and training, he is now a counselor at Fortune, helping newly released prisoners with reentry and reintegration issues. He has his own apartment and is a useful, tax-paying member of society. Vilma Ortiz Donovan arrived at The Castle after her second state prison bid. Both of her arrests were drug-related. At The Castle, she says, she saw that fundamental change was possible if she was ready to do the hard work required: “They created a place that allowed me to dig deep inside myself.” With new insight and support, she found employment and her own apartment, and enrolled in college. The second half of her life promises to be much brighter than the first. Casimiro Torres was turned over to the state at age 7. He was introduced to weed and wine at 10. “That’s how I managed my pain,” he says. Yet even as a homeless teenager, on drugs and stealing to survive, he’d always carried a paperback book in his rear pocket; he dreamed of adventures and a heroic life. When I first met him at The Castle, he was sullen, unkempt, and suspicious. Slowly, he began to see the possibilities of something else. His physical posture changed. He began to take the time to comb his hair and shave. No one asked him to do that, but I was witness to a man discovering who and what he could be. Eight years later he is married, with a beautiful daughter, and holding a responsible job. He votes and is a taxpayer; he is a mentsh. If you met him now — tall, handsome, self-confident — you would never imagine Caz as I first saw him. MANY FORMER PRISONERS WANT TO CHANGE THEIR LIVES but haven’t a clue as to how. “I’ve walked the yards with all sorts of felons,” says an old-timer, Bob Brown, who did twenty-eight straight years in New York prisons. “Almost everyone, at some time in their life, is ready to chuck the crime-prison revolving door. The ones who make it are those who have someone or something to hold onto when they have that motivation.” “Walking the yards,” “marking time,” and punishment for infractions, however, is mostly all that prisons offer. One ex-convict told me that to survive in prison, he had to continue the behaviors and crimes that were responsible for his incarceration. The terrible irony is that criminality becomes more deeply ingrained and subtle inside prison, where it is hidden and goes unreported. The underlying rage isn’t dealt with, but is unleashed on an unsuspecting public when the prisoner is finally released. No one holds prisons accountable for the role they play in exacerbating this alienation and anger by piling punishment on top of punishment, including solitary confinement, which simply makes people go mad. Public skepticism about prison reform is understandable, and political leadership on the issue is sadly lacking. The media loves crime and sensationalism and hardly devotes any coverage to those men and women who do overcome and repudiate a lifetime of abuse and neglect. But I have been a witness for more than forty years to people who have slowly and quietly triumphed over their demons. I have experienced first-hand Dostoevsky’s observation that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” And I know that we need to go back to the drawing board in terms of whom and how we arrest, convict, incarcerate, and rehabilitate. At the Fortune Society, people are not written off, dismissed, or judged entirely based on their negative pasts. As a result, I have seen miracles there. A priest visiting Fortune once remarked to me, “This is where Jesus would hang out.” I replied, “And he might run into Moses.” David Rothenberg is the author of Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion. In 1967, he produced Fortune and Men’s Eyes, an Off-Broadway play that led him to found the Fortune Society as a self-help group for those released from prison. His radio show, “Any Saturday,” can be heard Saturdays on WBAI from 8 to 10 a.m.