(Note – I published this before seeing an article about major left and right organizations joining forces on this very issue)
Back in the 1970s the left wing tried to institute a rehabilitation program into America’s prison system. The idea was to ensure that when an inmate is released from prison they would have the skills necessary to be a productive member of society. There was a large backlash. Anytime an ex-convict committed a crime it was front page news, usually with a comment about how “those bleeding heart liberals” value the lives of the dregs of society over the safety of your children.
There are still vestiges of the old rehabilitation in place, but for the most part prison life has become much harsher. The opposite of rehabilitation now occurs in most prisons. All too often somebody who has served a short sentence for a minor crime commits a major crime soon after returning to society. A lot of people point and say, “See, we told you. Everyone who goes to prison is a bad seed and should be locked away forever.”
The problem is, the harder we are on crime, the higher the costs. With the rate of incarceration in America being higher per capita than all but a handful of authoritarian states, it seems as if we are breaking our budget only to create more criminals. Everyone knows violent extremists are created in the prison system. And of course those same bleeding hearts are still complaining about prison conditions.
A funny thing is happening in Texas, a state usually known more for their harsh prison system and high execution rate. The right wing has created a rehabilitation program.
The program was created by fiscal conservatives to save money, but there is now more to it than simple dollars. Many see it as their “Christian duty” to help those in need. Although we usually see the “fire and brimstone” side of fundamentalist Christianity, the more compassionate side does exist, though it usually takes the form of individuals helping individuals, not governments helping societies, a philosophy that is brought into this rehabilitation program.
A big part of the program is pairing inmates with outside business partners. Instead of being rehabilitated in a large, impersonal, institutionalized setting the way many traditional rehab programs are run, these inmates are worked with as individuals.
Going beyond simply rehabilitating prisoners, the program also works to keep people out of prisons in the first place, not in the way liberals usually think about of fixing the parts of society that create criminals, but by catching individuals as the enter the system. These individuals are assessed for risk and then placed were they seem to fit. For example, there are specialty courts and community based probation programs.
And the outcome? More ex-cons in Texas are employed and have a higher success rate of avoiding crime. The prison population is falling and the money spent on the prison system, including these programs, is shrinking. Crime in the whole country is falling, so saying that crime in Texas is also falling can’t be 100% attributed to the rehabilitation program, but most experts think it has helped lower crime. And, quoting a BBC article, it “demonstrates love and compassion towards some of the most excluded members of society.”
I’ve read a few articles about this program, but first read it on the BBC. You can read this article and others for more details.
With prison populations in America booming even though crime rates are falling we need to do something. Why are so many of our people imprisoned? Why are conditions so harsh and dehumanizing? I think everyone agrees something needs to be done. I also think everyone should agree that what is happening with this program in Texas makes a good model for how we can start to turn around the trend and start shrinking the prisons instead of growing them. I think other states can, and should, learn from what they’ve done in Texas.
Although in some ways they come from different sides of the same coin, this is a place where left and right have some agreement. They both want to see prison populations decrease. They both want more productive members of society. They both want to stop small time criminals from being hardened and committing major crimes. And though the left often sees the far right as heartless and uncaring, in truth they both want to, quoting from BBC again, demonstrate “love and compassion towards some of the most excluded members of society.”
It is possible for left to meet right in prison and come up with a happy solution, a compassionate solution. I just hope people on both sides can see this opportunity.
Note – this may seem like a weird article for a series on compassion, but to show real compassion we need to look at all members of society, not just a favored few. It isn’t just children born with a disability or a person who’s life has met disaster, but we need to include all members of society.
Since it is the 20th in some parts of the world it has begun! You can add your links or see others at the “linky”