The issue of what to do with the criminal justice system has long plagued politicians. Even throughout the current presidential race, hopeful candidates are clamoring to get their two cents in.
The unusual thing: members of both sides have similar sentiments.
“For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison,” presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) said. “The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. We need real education and real skills training for the incarcerated.”
Both parties agree; the current U.S. criminal justice system isn’t working. For Democrats and Republicans to both fight for the same cause is huge in today’s tangled web of politics.
And yet, it can be easy to chalk up these demands to political rhetoric and distance oneself from the issue.
For Tracy Greer, 26, it is impossible to forget about the problems plaguing the justice system, as he is right in the middle of it.
While he had his first stint in prison at around age 16 and has been in and out since, currently, Greer is an inmate at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri. Far from his home, Greer is stacked up against a 16-year sentence, and he is struggling through his days, rot with illness and distressed by his conditions.
“I live in constant stress,” Greer said, “[and] suffer from anxiety due to being in the dark of my situation.”
Dr. Beth Huebner, a professor and the director of Graduate Programs in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Missouri-St. Louis, said these conditions and the lack of focus on rehabilitation can lead to recidivism, a huge problem the United States is battling right now. For many, the problems that led them to jail still plague their lives after they are freed.
“The biggest factor [in recidivism] is a lot of people go into prison with a number of challenges. People who go to prison on average read at a ninth or tenth grade level, [have] low levels of education, low levels of employment prior to prison so they are not ready to jump back into society when they are done with prison because they didn’t go in very prepared, so that is one of the challenges when they come out,” Dr. Huebner said. “[Another] very large factor is drug use. A lot of people went to prison because they’ve been involved with drugs and those sort of cravings often continue when they go home. Mental health challenges are a huge issue as well; couple that together and mix in the stigma of imprisonment.”
Another major issue in the criminal justice system, and in Greer’s life personally, is healthcare. The prison system has a slow, inept system that leaves prisoners susceptible to diseases that are eradicated and easily curable in the rest of the country.
“Prison healthcare is quite similar to care without insurance. It’s menial, misfeasance, improper, harsh and rarely effective. A lot of us suffer from minor maladies that can be prevented with basic antibiotics and cold medicine, but we get generic care from nurses that are employed by Corizon who tend to be lazy [and] unhealthy, who view us as criminals and not patients,” Greer said. “They take on the ideology, concepts and demeanor of a correctional officer and not a medical professional. We have to go to ‘sick call’ to report issues that these LPN’s/RN’s will misdiagnose from lack of experience. Everything is remedied by aspirin, cold/allergy tabs, generic TUMS/Pepto Bismol or some type of hydrocortisone ointment. If they feel you need a doctor, you’re scheduled to see her/him in two to four weeks who then asks, ‘What are you here for?’ as if they’re lost to the why. We then tell them and are found healthy and told to stretch and drink more water.”
Greer was diagnosed with nodular melanoma in March 2014, after complaining of a growth on his lower right leg since the summer of 2013. He found out the doctor had been ignoring cancer all that time after years of nobody listening and taking the time to investigate the growth.
“I finally received a biopsy and was nonchalantly told, ‘You have cancer,’ and whisked out of the office as if I had a minor cough. No empathy, information or further explanation,” Greer said. “In May 2015, I was scheduled for surgery because [I had] three times the normal tissue and had surgery on July 7, 2015. Once back, I was placed in ad-seg, the hole, with an unfamiliar cell mate. I suffered three infections: one in my groin from a lymph node being removed and two in the leg it was in. I was ignored and harassed at times when I complained about getting my wound cleared and redressed. In a nutshell, healthcare in prison sucks, and many people die prematurely more than people in society may know.”
But education is lacking as much as healthcare, if not more. Inmates such as Greer who are motivated to learn and grow while they wait in prison are inhibited by others who refuse to learn and instead destroy the learning environment.
“Education in prison is a circus. Rarely do they have effective curriculum and assertive teachers. You pass along at your own pace. It can take years. Some have been in school for over a decade on and off. It’s mandatory and forced on those who don’t want it, and those that do wait on an open space,” Greer said. “Most level five [maximum security] joints lack school. All education is geared so that you can get a GED, but your success or lack thereof depends on you.”
While in prison, inmates are often met with the chance to seriously study for the first time because when they were out, they were distracted and shrugged off education.
Many come from homes where education was not encouraged, where drugs pulled focus, where gangs took priority. Greer said he came from a “hectic life” and never got the chance to attend college. Now, however, he would revel in the opportunity.
“You can take college courses only if they approve the curriculum. They will not pay for it, and they make it nearly impossible because your family cannot pay for it, either. [So] the payment must come off of your inmate account, which holds less than $1,000,” Greer said. “Hell, yeah, I want to take college courses. I want to take business management, financial planning and psychology for starters. Then major in communication and paralegal studies and health/nutrition.”
LaMarr Mayfield, 19, is one of Greer’s fellow inmates at the South Central Correctional Center. After being arrested in Columbia at age 15, Mayfield is serving a 17-year sentence for the second degree murder of former RBHS student Bryan Rankin Jr., along with armed criminal action.
Mayfield shares Greer’s desire to further his education, but also similar to Greer, sees the insurmountable challenges that inhibit him from pursuing this goal. Internet is not allowed in the South Central Correctional Center, and there are no on site college courses offered. Everything would have to go through snail mail despite today’s world of technology.
“They don’t offer college in here, but I was thinking about it. You can apply for a college, but you have to go through a lot. It’s going to all be letters. I write to them. They send me the work. I do it and send it back,” Mayfield said. “If there is a time limit and the weather is bad, they aren’t going to get it in time.”
Besides education in the sense of degrees and certificates, prisoners desperately need to be educated on how to re-enter the world and abstain from whatever landed them there in the first place.[quote cite=”Dr. Beth Huebner”]People who have been in prison do not commit crimes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.[/quote]
Dr. Huebner said many non-violent offenders are addicted to drugs, making it hard for them to turn their lives around and stay out of prison when they are still addicted and cannot afford rehabilitation on the outside. If this necessary treatment happened on the inside, however, prisoners might have an easier time transitioning back to normal lives when they are completely sober and know how to keep it that way, especially with programs that continued once they are released.
“One of the biggest thing in the prison itself is continued drug treatment, mental health treatment and mental health services. We do a decent job of that in Missouri. We actually have reentry programs begin in prison. People are given their driver license or ID, so they can return back to society a little more prepared. The problem is that it is not always followed up in the community, so the work is less effective. Drug treatment is great in prison, but if you don’t follow up in the community, then it loses its effectiveness. Long-term programs are key.”
The mandatory classes taught while in prison that are intended to aid in the prisoners’ correction and transition back to the world are substandard at best, Greer said. He worries that he doesn’t have any practical skills that will aid him in becoming a self-sufficient adult because he was incarcerated at such a young age and has had so little rehabilitation and help with planning for his future.
“I don’t know how to find insurance, do a W-2, pay bills properly, drive or behave as a citizen due to being in prison since 2016-17,” Greer said. “I don’t have any children, never had a real relationship and lack necessary/essential skills. My worry is if it is enough [for me] to function, survive and not be ostracized as a social derelict.”
Understaffing has led the few programs available to only house a small portion of the inmates, meaning the unlucky ones can’t even take advantage of these few and far between real-world classes.
The lack of job abilities and experience has left Greer with a sense of disconnect with not only the world but with his free will to change his life once he leaves. The emotional aspects that go along with being released are also on Greer’s mind.
“I don’t honestly see any life skill classes or programs that aid in being thrown into society, but we do have places to learn trades in lower level facilities. We have job training, resume writing courses, etc. But the seats are limited to maybe 25 inmates out of 1200 and it’ll be cut due to funding or understaffing,” Greer said. “I am not worried about being released nor going back to society. I’m worried about not being prepared mentally, emotionally and psychologically. A lot of us do the minimum of 10 before release. A lot has changed; family has died [and I have] no money, shelter or support.”
Mayfield has also battled worries about release because of his paranoia that has developed from living in such a hostile environment. If he hears a noise, he whips around in his seat to see what’s going on. Prisoners regularly fight, and many feel that they have to avoid being taken advantage of or gaining a reputation of being a pushover.
“A couple times I got caught slipping. Nobody came up on me, but people let me know, ‘Yo, if you get a table you got to get one in the corner and sit on the edge so nobody can come up behind you.’ Usually if you go for a table, you go for a table with your homies. And if you are on the edge, I can look behind him and he can look behind me. We’re all watching each other’s backs,” Mayfield said. “You also never have your legs between the pole of the table. You put your legs on one side or the other because if someone starts punching you, you’re going to trip and fall.”
The inmates’ social abilities and psyches are never the same after spending so much time in a world where they must fight to survive and every noise, every flicker of light, every voice signals impending danger.
Dr. Huebner said the social implications of mass incarceration dig deeply into communities, leaving holes where there should be people. Children go without a father’s hug every night, spouses go without a kiss good morning on their way to work and mothers go without visits from their child. In fact, 2.5 million American children have at least one incarcerated parent.
“I often tell people in my class that people who have been in prison do not commit crimes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These are people who are spouses and parents and godparents. These are important people in the community,” Dr. Huebner said. “In communities like Detroit and Boston and other urban areas where a large amount of people have been sent to prison, we find that those communities are often more destabilized as a result. There is such a large part of the population that has been removed and that is stressful.”
Today the United States holds fewer than five percent of the world’s population, yet detains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to the NAACP. Adding together the number of citizens in prisons, jails and under parole, one in every 31 adults is under correctional control. Paying for the housing and care for this many people simply isn’t helpful with the United States’ current economy.
“It is very expensive to put people into prison,” Dr. Huebner said. “We spend more money on prison than on schools. That means communities cannot spend much on other things because they spend it on prison.”
As Dr. Huebner puts it, with more than 60 percent of those in prison and jail being non-violent offenders, it doesn’t make sense to keep such a large percentage of the population behind bars when they can be surveilled out in the community, hold down their jobs and tuck their children into bed at night.
“Clearly we need prison for serious, violent offenders. There is no question about that. But we need to develop better ways of supervising people in the community, like GPS monitoring, home confinement, home treatment,” Dr. Huebner said. “We need to reconsider how many people we are putting in prison, particularly low level nonviolent offenders like drug offenders, who would be served much better with treatment in the community. It is cost effective.”
With all the problems that plague the prison system, Greer urges others not to land themselves in prison. This is hard, especially if a child grows up in an environment where illegal activities are encouraged and glorified. But through perseverance and focusing in on self improvement, Greer hopes the next generation can sleep with dreams of being a lawyer or a doctor, instead of a boy on the street selling drugs.
“Transcend the ignorance and focus on the betterment of self. It’s no future in the streets, so take advantage of the potential you possess. Focus on the possibilities and care less about what the people say. Your life has merit and the opportunities are endless so seize the time,” Greer said. “The only way to avoid the heartache of prison is to avoid doing those things that’ll lead them here in the first place. Do constructive activities because idle time leads to an idle mind which then becomes the devil’s workshop. Boredom for you is counterproductive; it only conduces boys to be misguided boys.”
Do you think the criminal justice system needs to be reformed? What are some problems that you see in the current system?