Behind Bars: Clarifying my stance on preparing prisoners for life after jail
I don’t create the headlines to my articles, and this has never been an issue until recently. I was rather distraught when I saw the one that read, “Prisoners should not be released without prep for the outside world.”
This was not only not the message I wanted to convey, but it is dangerous to have other prisoners believing this is my opinion. Apparently my message was lost in translation. I try to walk a fine line in what I can and can’t say.
I imagine the damage has already been done, but I would like to clarify.
I had written, “It feels irresponsible for the Department of Corrections to release prisoners knowing they are completely unprepared.” The point I was intending to make was not to say prisoners shouldn’t be released, but to say that there are real people that could use some help and are not getting it.
When a prisoner has served their debt to society, they should be released. The irresponsible part is that a lot of prisoners receive no rehabilitation and have few opportunities to learn the skills they need to function in society.
An officer in one of my classes told us a story of a prisoner who paroled directly from max and assaulted the officer who was literally holding the door open for him on the way out of prison. Now that may have been a case of a prisoner not wanting to go home, or it may have been something else.
Either way, how realistic is it to expect a prisoner to go from being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day to the outside world and then be successful?
Max is reserved for prisoners that are unable to behave in prison or who are considered a security risk; those are the extreme cases. What about all the prisoners who are not locked down all day, but are just being warehoused? There are so many prisoners who find themselves purposeless. There are simply not enough opportunities to go around.
Some would say that is part of the punishment, but that philosophy is counterproductive. It’s a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. Creating opportunities for prisoners and teaching them to be successful has no downside.
I’ve been told that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have some of the lower recidivism rates, use a tiered system where prisoners demonstrate a progression through vocational training and implementation into a work program outside of prison. As I understand it, this applies to the majority of their prisoners.
In those systems prisoners exhibit the ability to function in something more closely resembling real life and earn their freedom sooner. This isn’t some socialist Utopian ideal; these systems are in place and having success, not only in reducing re-offenses, but the long-term financial costs are proving to be less as well.
Only recently has Utah adopted ways in which prisoners can earn time cuts, and even on that front there seems to be a huge disconnect between the lawmakers and the prison. In this prison there are vocational opportunities and work programs, but too few.
For example, I am fortunate enough to be able to leave the prison for volunteer work; however, that job is one day a week, and there are currently only two of us in Gunnison doing that. Also, picking up trash doesn’t exactly provide prisoners a practical skill transferable to the outside world, but the fact that this program exists now is definitely a step in the right direction.
I believe prisoners should be given opportunities to rehabilitate themselves before release and to have their sentences shortened through such programs. Prison sentences have gotten longer and longer with no evidence to suggest that longer sentences improve outcomes.
To the contrary, shorter sentences coupled with therapy, education and job training are the answer to an ever-increasing prison population. Attitudes are indeed changing in this regard, but the tangible changes are slow.
Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.