President Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. Pope Francis plans to visit a U.S. state prison. Is prison reform coming?
It’s been awhile since readers of These Stone Walls were subjected to a summer rerun, but why reinvent the wheel? At about this time three years ago, I wrote a summer post about the folly of the current state of the prison system in the United States. That post had a catchy title – “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8Track in an iPod world.”
That post cited some dismal statistics about our expensive, overcrowded, and entirely ineffective prisons that Barack Obama now wants to change. I’ve even heard rumors that former President Bill Clinton has also had some second thoughts about the draconian “Clinton Crime Bill” that he championed twenty years ago to enhance sentences and cut prison programs such as Pell grants for education.
Time Magazine reporter, Josh Sanburn was a step ahead of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton when he published “Live Free or Be Incarcerated,” (TIME, September 22, 2014). And so was local reporter, Jeremy Blackman in an eye-opening article, “Behind Bars: The State of New Hampshire’s Rising Prison Population” (Concord Monitor, September 22, 2013).
Now that New Hampshire is in national spotlights for its First in the Nation Presidential Primary role, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the fact that this one small state also leads the nation in prison growth. If presidents and popes can focus election year attention on this, so can we.
There’s a lot at stake. “Unchained Melody” was also about my friend, Joseph, a young African-American prisoner who was sent to prison at the age of 17. Having served eight years in prison, he was released in 2013, a year after I wrote about him. Joseph survived two years on the streets. Then he lost his job and could not find another. Then his life spiraled out of control. Now Joseph is back, reflecting a sad and tragic statistic about the current system’s recidivism rate cited in “Unchained Melody.”
Thanks to the passage of a 1980s era law called “Truth in Sentencing,” this small state’s prison system grew from a total of under 300 prisoners in 1980 to hover around 3,000 at the time Joseph was released in 2013. The politicians who wrote and passed that law thought judges would mitigate their sentences accordingly, but that never happened. One result is something you already know about – that innocent defendants who cannot accept plea deals end up serving far more time than guilty defendants who readily accept such deals. “Truth in Sentencing” had the effect of adding ear plugs to the blindfold of Lady Justice.
So, what happens in eight years of punishment that might motivate a lost young man like Joseph to repeat the experience? It’s time to find out. The recidivism rate both here and nationally is simply dismal. “Unchained Melody,” along with some of its included links, might be a good place to start. It also contains an alluring piece of music that makes it worth the visit.
Please don’t let the sun go down on the political process this election cycle without joining the President and the Pope for a visit to prison. Please read and share “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8Track in an iPod world.”