Books by John E. Smethers, Ph.D
I heard the correction officer's keys jingling before he unlocked the dorm door. I walked down the sidewalk toward the yard and heard all the voices. When I approached the yard, I saw a huge day-care center before me. The sun was shining, and there was a cool breeze. There were Mansons and Dahmers everywhere. Some were playing soccer, some basketball, and some were throwing frisbees. They were working out on the weight pile, playing cards on picnic tables, and many were just walking around the yard. The tennis and handball courts were also occupied. Others were cheering their favorite team in the bleachers while watching the softball game, "Hey, that punk was out, faggot!" Ironically, I couldn't find one inmate that looked unhappy or depressed. The fact is, prison doesn't work.
The federal, and most of the state prison systems are huge day-care centers or kindergartens. Prison is not a deterrent to crime; education is. By using myself as an example, I will show how education worked for me, and how it could work for countless others.
While I was a ward of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), I found that much of the inmate population liked being there. They were "institutionalized." Inmates are well provided for, having little, if no responsibility for themselves. Our clothes and linen were cleaned for us every week--all we had to do is drop it off and pick it up; our meals were provided for us--all we had to do is show up, wait in line, and eat; we had a big yard to play on--a weight pile where we could flex our muscles, show off, and be macho, then strut around the yard acting tough (many of them are), much like kids do on the playground. We build reputations, status, and respect from our peers by controlling the drug and alcohol flow, managing moneymaking schemes, and having our subordinates do our dirty work. Drugs are plentiful on the yard, and pruno (home made wine) is easily made. Every three months we can have money and material things (a package) sent to us from the streets. If we are married, we can even spend the weekend in a bungalow with our wives and relieve ourselves sexually. In prisons that have rooms (cells), we can enjoy watching our own TV. No, prison doesn't work.
Amazing! It seems to me, we are encouraging crime--not preventing it--by building miniature cities (prisons) for criminals to rule their prospective kingdoms. They have it made. I was there and this is what I observed. I asked Rick, a man doing three years for several consecutive drunk drivings,"Do you really want to get out? I get the impression you like it here." "Yeah, home boy, I can't wait to hit the streets."
He believed what he said; however, he had a subconscious want and/or need to stay where he was. To prove it, when he is released he will not make a single attempt to reform his life. He will commit crimes and/or take drugs with no worry of getting caught. Why worry? If he gets caught, some judge will just send him back home. Prison just doesn't work.
I can't count the times I was in county jail and had conversations much like this: "You gone to court yet, bro?"
"Tomorrow, homeboy, then it's back to the joint."
"You sound like you want to go there."
"Shit homes, I'd rather do a year in the joint than thirty days in this hole."
That is the typical attitude of prisoners in the county jail waiting for sentencing, and I agree with one hundred percent, for county jail is hell compared to the heaven of the joint.
Recidivism is high; the typical inmate will be back in the joint on a violation usually within months, and then the revolving door process continues. Joe, a buddy I grew up with began his addiction to heroin when he was 22 years old. Before this, Joe had served several county jail sentences that were alcohol related. Because of armed robberies, burglaries, petty and grand thefts, under the influence charges, and other drug related offenses, he has spent approximately 15 years in prison, off and on. Not once did he ever take the first step toward rehabilitation. He wouldn't admit that he didn't mind being in prison, but what was his behavior saying? That prison wasn't the least bit of a threat to him. Joe is doing life now. A high-speed chase ended in a head-on collision where an eight-year-old girl was killed. He had just pulled an armed robbery.
Consciously, most of us think we do not want to get caught, but unconsciously our behavior is saying, "Catch me, so I can go back home, where I will be taken care of and provided for." How is a person made to prepare for a law-abiding life on the outside? In no way really. By taking away responsibility by being placed in the prison system, the inmate becomes less responsible. His self-reliance is atrophied. There is no understanding or no rehabilitation. We inmates were provided with jobs, so we can make money, for not all of us are lucky enough to have family send us packages. However, how does that teach us responsibility when our only other option is lock up if we refuse to work? Here is a conversation I had with one of my bunkies when I was in the Chino Guiding Center:
"What are you going to do when you get out, Solidad?"
"Get high, Dude. First thing."
"Aren't you afraid of getting violated and sent back?"
"Yeah, but the P.O. [parole officer] isn't going to test me on my first day out."
Solidad does not plan on returning to prison on a violation, but with his attitude, he doesn't stand a chance of being successfully discharged from parole. Furthermore, he isn't really worried about whether he returns to prison or not; because, prison really doesn't work.
One evening I was standing in line for commissary (store), and I overheard a conversation going on between two inmates in front of me: "You know, homey, I wouldn't be here for robbin’ that liquor store if the damn clutch wasn't bad in that old Chevy of mine. Just as I was taking off, the motor died. I got it started, then it died again. That happened three times. By the time I made it to the corner there were red lights everywhere."
At the time I could identify, because I have all too often placed the blame for my behavior outside of me. It would have been a waste of time for me to say,"Hey man, you wouldn't be here for robbin a liquor store if you hadn't been robbing a liquor store." It's strange, but that obvious statement doesn't seem to occur to them. It wouldn't have to me either. When I was a bartender, I was in the bar on my night off. A couple guys asked if I could get them some drugs. I said no. Later they asked me again. And again I said no. However, when they asked me again around one o'clock I knew there was some in the bar, so I got it for them. They were under cover policemen. I fought it in a jury trial and lost. I appealed it, and lost that too. I was entrapped. It wasn't my fault. They were picking on me. The truth is, if I wouldn't have been selling drugs, I wouldn't have gone to prison for selling drugs. However, I was not capable of seeing it that way.
Most of these inmates don't want anything to do with the responsibility of living in the outside world. William Glasser, author of Reality Therapy, wrote about it: "He broke the law not because he was angry or bored, but because he was irresponsible. The unhappiness is not a cause but a companion to his irresponsible behavior." The streets are a frightening place to be, because being responsible and accountable for their actions is alien to them. The whole idea of prison for punishment is backwards.
Most of us go to prison because of, directly or indirectly, drugs and/or alcohol. I was a practicing alcoholic and drug addict for over thirty years, and finally my disease took me to the penitentiary. I was lucky though; the facility where I was last incarcerated started a treatment program for substance abusers, and I got in on it. Judging from my experience, if the inmates with chemical dependency problems can be educated about their disease, they can learn that they have a choice other than prison, insanity, or death. They could be provided with tools that might lead them to a happy and productive life on the streets. I knew nothing other than dependence on chemicals for most of my life. After I left the Chino Guiding Center I was transferred to Sierra Conservation Center at Jamestown, California. It was there that I encountered "Project Change"--a substance abuse education program. We lived in dorms that housed thirty-three people (designed for twenty-two), and every day teachers from the education department came to our dorm. We held classes in the television room. Our teachers were dedicated. Mary, the one that did most of the work putting the program together, is often in my thoughts. She talked about her drug addict brother, and admitted to some drug and alcohol use when she was younger; therefore, we felt that she had more than just a job to do. She had a personal interest, which was more than just another academic endeavor. Had it not been for her, I wouldn't have a bachelors degree today. She convinced me that I was capable of success if I went back to school. Before my release, she helped me fill out the tedious financial aide forms, and we sent them out from there. When I got out, all I had to do was enroll. Sixty days after I left prison, I was sitting in college classrooms, and I've been doing that ever since.
There is education available to non-substance abusers also. In "Project Change" we were taught about dysfunctional families, 12-step programs, relapse prevention, anger control, health, depression, family unity, family violence, co-dependency, and much more. The program was voluntary, and the inmates that participated really got involved. One of the most inspirational and motivating segments of the program for me, was a series of video tapes orated by Gordon Graham called Breaking Barriers. These tapes taught me that "change" was the way out of the mental prison that I had been confined in for so many years. I learned that I had to monitor and discipline my thoughts. When I had thoughts of going to the places where I previously drank and used, I had to stop thinking about that and start thinking about something else. Before I was sent to the pen, I worked in a biker bar as a bartender where I had an unlimited amount of alcohol at my disposal. I partied there a lot too, spending time there when I wasn't working. When I wasn't there, I was going to the connection's house and buying drugs, or to friends' house selling them. I thought of all the people I associated with, especially the girlfriends. Thinking about all of that had to stop. Creating imagery of where I wanted to be when I was released was imperative to my recovery. Cognitive Therapy calls this process "thought stopping." In my mind's eye, I pictured myself in AA meetings and in college classrooms. It took a long time for me to keep those negative thoughts from entering my mind. When they would come, I would shoo them away. Sometimes it took awhile before I realized I was thinking them, but as I kept exorcizing the recurring thoughts, and replacing them with the ones of where I wanted to be, eventually they didn't come anymore. Because of this painstaking mental exercise, everything that I forced myself to think about while I was incarcerated, has come true today. Before "Project Change" I had no intentions of ever quitting drugs and/or alcohol--for I thought that was what I wanted to do indefinitely. Why change? I thought. What is the use?
Change is the key to rehabilitation, and the key to change is education. In my case, the education I received in "Project Change" was what initiated my recovery. For true change, real change, it has to come from within. Education is the only way this can be accomplished.
For a long time it has been believed that prison is punishment. Judges still send people to prison for punishment. In truth--Prison simply doesn't work. If inmates have no opportunity to be responsible inside the walls, why should they become responsible outside of them? As I walked around the yard, I could see the comfort zone that most of the inmates were in--they were relaxed and at home. Their jovial camaraderie, "Hey, home-boy, what it be like?" would give anyone the impression that they were in their element. The human condition can get used to anything, and it is all too visible there. They are used to doing time. When I see those types of people on the street, they do not have the appearance of being in a comfort zone--that relaxed, at home appearance. They seem more on edge. For good reason: they have much more to be on edge about. Everything isn't handed to them the way it is in the joint. The appreciation of freedom is a sophisticated concept. It involves the appreciation of others (healthy relationships), interaction (socialization), helping others (without expecting anything in return), and mutual caring (love). Prison types that I see on the street do not have this because they haven't been taught how.
"Project Change" was a spiritual or psychological experience for me, because finally I knew that I was mentally sober--not just abstinent. Before "Project Change," I held everything outside me at fault; there was no real me; my life was controlled by my surroundings--whether I was on the streets or in jail, I was unproductive to my environment. After I was released, I began to think of others instead of just myself; I attended AA meetings where I started learning social skills and how to help others; I learned to love my fellow human whether I liked them or not; I started seeing that I could create my own world and live happy. If this "inside" change didn't occur, I would have returned to the only lifestyle I had ever known-- alcohol, drugs, and then eventually back to prison where life is like a day care center.
So, the government, due to popular misconceptions about prisons and what they are for, keeps spending money to put more people in them, toward what end? To make crime more attractive? No, prison doesn't work.
There is a similar phenomenon occurring in the mental health field called "The Hospitalization Syndrome." Many who reside in large mental hospitals over long periods of time tend to adopt a passive role, losing the self-confidence and motivation required for reentering the outside world--deficiency in self-concept. In institutions that serve primarily as "storage bins" for the emotionally disturbed, basic work and social skills may atrophy through disuse. The same goes for prisons, they are also "storage bins." There is no doubt--prison does not work.
California is planning both operating budgets for prisons, and construction costs at levels far more than those that funded the entire prison system of the United States 20 years ago. Then again, the state anticipates having a larger prison population by the end of this decade--more than that of all 50 states in 1973. For 20 years, as the number of prisoners doubled and then tripled in the United States, the policies behind prison expansion have been unexamined as well as uncontested. I was released from CDC in December, 1989. Then, both of the institutions where I was confined were extremely overcrowded. The prison population is twice as overcrowded now. As of November 1994, in California, the prison population has reached one million. Obviously, prison doesn't work.