Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Fruits and Nuts of Prison Reform

by Chris Innes
author of Healing Corrections: The Future of Imprisonment

President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison has highlighted an emerging bipartisan consensus in support of prison reform. The movement toward reform has been encouraged by the recognition that crime rates have fallen to levels not seen in 50 years while the number of people in American prisons continues to grow, albeit at a much slower pace than in recent decades. Of the interest in reform, the Wall Street Journal said, “Part of the reason is simple numbers: The U.S. is jailing people faster than the public can pay for them.” But even the most ambitious proposals for reform will still leave hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated.

The reason is that the current crop of reform proposals focus on a relatively small group that represent the so-called “low-hanging fruit” among the American prison population. Addressing the far larger share of people in prison will be a much harder nut to crack. The President, understandably, is focused on the Federal prison population, about half of whom are drug offenders. He and other advocates for reform have tended to talk most about people serving time for a drug offense and most especially about those people who are non-violent. But there are only about 200,000 Federal prisoners, out of the 1.5 million people serving sentences on American prisons. The fact is that the great majority of the people in prison are serving time for a violent offense, have a history of violence, and/or are repeat offenders with lengthy criminal records.

This raises the question of, after we are successful in accomplishing all the currently proposed reforms, “What’s next?” Mass incarceration is by no means our only problem when it comes to prisons. And the end of mass incarceration, when it comes, will create a future for imprisonment that will be vastly different from the one we now know. It may be that a downsized system will be worse than the one we have because we will be dealing with only the toughest cases. In other words, when we’ve stopped putting in prison all the people we think shouldn’t be there, what are we going to do with all those we think should be locked up? The subtitle of my book, Healing Corrections, is “The Future of Imprisonment.” The book provides a framework for creating healing environments within prisons and jails. It gives the answer to what secure institutions could be in the post-mass incarceration future.

When people first hear about the idea of creating a healing environment in prisons and jails, they often misunderstand its meaning. What is being healed, and thereby becomes healing, are the cultures within them. These cultures have become fragmented under the pressures of conflicting demands, limited resources, and the inevitable stresses and strains that go along with living or working in correctional settings. The focus of the transformation of these cultures is on the people who work there because they are the only ones who can do the work. Healing Corrections shows how people working in prisons and jails can be helped to communicate with each other and with inmates in constructive and compassionate ways to build a better place to work for themselves and healthier place to live for inmates.

Those who see the possibility of fundamental reform on our justice system are right. We are experiencing what could be a historic moment in our collective understanding of how the contradictions of and between our social, legal, and economic systems can be used to catalyze fundamental changes in order to re-create our justice system and redefine its role in society. One source of this change must be a transformation of the culture of corrections, which will, I believe, help initiate a shift in our society’s relationship to both the people who work for and those who literally live within our justice system. But along the way, we have some tough nuts to crack.

To learn more about Chris Innes' book, Healing Corrections, and to read his regular blog on this topic, visit


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