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America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?

Ruth Morgan
Jean O’Hara, founder of the group Survivors of Murder Victims, talking to inmates about her murdered daughter and grandson during a victim impact class, one of the programs in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, circa 2003

America’s prison system is in a dire state. Some 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, five times more than in 1978. Our incarceration rate is now higher than that of any other country in the world. Many, if not most, inmates probably should not be there. Sixteen percent of the adult prison population suffers from mental illness and should be in treatment; a similar fraction is made up of children under eighteen. Although there is little evidence that blacks are more likely to use drugs than whites, they are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug-related charges.1 Of those, most have no history of violence or drug dealing, and were arrested mainly for possession of drugs.2

Sexual and other forms of abuse in prison are common, reported by some 20 percent of inmates. These “monster factories,” as the lawyer and author Sunny Schwartz calls them, do little to break the cycle of violence in society and may even accelerate it. Roughly two thirds of those released from US jails and prisons end up back inside within three years. Some studies suggest that the experience of imprisonment can be so brutal and humiliating that it actually makes men, in particular, harder and meaner, so that the crimes they commit the next time around are even worse than what got them incarcerated in the first place.3

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is currently sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to review America’s entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. If the bill passes, its commissioners should bear in mind a small experiment that took place in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, some years ago. This project, the subject of Sunny Schwartz’s brief, absorbing memoir Dreams from the Monster Factory, is important not just because it dramatically reduced recidivism, but also because it could help break the tired stalemate between liberals and conservatives over punishment versus rehabilitation. In addition, Schwartz’s book is revealing about the criminal mind and its thought processes, and thus contains valuable lessons for those at risk of incarceration, and for those close to them.

Schwartz, now in her fifties, began working in the San Francisco county jails in 1980 as a student intern. She volunteered to spend two days a week writing reports on prisoners’ complaints about sentencing or jail conditions and forwarding them through the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy of the California state justice system. After graduating from law school, Schwartz worked briefly for an AIDS service organization and then, in 1990, at the request of her old boss Sheriff Michael Hennessey, she returned to County Jail 7 in San Bruno to launch a new set of programs designed to help inmates make the transition back into society after their release.

The inmates at San Bruno were typical of prison and jail populations across America. Over half were black, although blacks make up only 6 percent of San Francisco’s population. Approximately 75 percent were high school dropouts, and most had reading skills below the seventh-grade level; 65 percent had been relegated to special education programs before dropping out of school, and 90 percent had never held a legal job. Eighty percent reported that they had been physically or sexually abused as children, and 80 percent had committed at least one act of violence. In jail, these inmates spent their days watching television (Jerry Springer, slasher movies, cartoons), working out, getting into fights with one another, being strip-searched by the deputy sheriffs, and composing elaborate complaints to the authorities.

Some 70 percent of inmates released from San Bruno ended up back in jail within three years, a slightly higher failure rate than the national average. Schwartz’s job was to develop programs to change this. Her first move was to open a jail-based high school with classes in reading, writing, math, and other subjects, as well as “life skills”—meaning how to get and hold on to a job. In many respects the school she set up was a success. Inmates appreciated having something to do during the day, and many earned degrees that would greatly increase their prospects for employment upon release. But this had only a modest effect on their violent tendencies. During off-hours, they continued to pick fights with one another. Overhearing inmates yelling into the phones, the guards assumed that this aggressive behavior would continue after they were released. “We taught him to read,” one of them joked. “Let’s put up a sign telling him to stop beating his wife.”

Schwartz began to wonder whether classroom instruction alone would convey the skills the inmates needed to remain in society once they got there. Although the jail contained both men and women, the men worried her far more. Some were so aggressive and violent that they frightened even a seasoned criminal lawyer like her. Some men even frightened themselves. One who was about to be released begged Schwartz to keep him inside because he feared that he would be unable to restrain himself from assaulting a neighbor’s five-year-old daughter. She knew that some men, perhaps including this one, were beyond rehabilitation, but she also knew instinctively—and correctly, it turned out—that most could change if they were given the chance, but they would need powerful emotional assistance to do it. What this assistance would consist of was not obvious at first.

Shortly after she began work at San Bruno, Schwartz attended a conference in Minnesota where she heard for the first time about “restorative justice.” Contemporary justice in the United States is largely based on the idea of retribution, and relies primarily on punishment. Restorative justice, as Schwartz explains it, is based on the concept prevalent in more traditional societies that offenders must also try to repair, as far as possible, the harm they have caused others. In order to do this, offenders must first confront what they have done, and then make amends to their families, their communities, and, if possible, their victims as well. Schwartz writes that she very soon came to believe that restorative justice could be a means of transforming these men from chronic offenders into productive members of their communities.

The first step, persuading the San Bruno inmates to face up to their own violent behavior, would be the most difficult. What is particularly striking about violent men is how remorseless they often seem, as if they were devoid of feeling. Schwartz shows how their experience under the justice system only reinforces this sense of detachment. During their trials, defense lawyers coached them to deny or minimize their crimes. In jail, they spent their days complaining about the conditions, their sentences, the behavior of the deputies and other inmates, and society at large. At no time were the men ever required to assess their own behavior or acknowledge the pain they had caused.

Schwartz was familiar with various kinds of “anger management” classes, most of which simply taught violent men to suppress their rage or walk away from situations that might provoke it. She wanted something different, a program that would help the men examine and ultimately “rewire” their own emotions. She decided to experiment with Manalive, a community-based program for men who had committed domestic violence that had been created years earlier by Hamish Sinclair, a San Francisco–based educator and community organizer. Manalive soon became the foundation for all of Schwartz’s other programs, which collectively came to be called the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or RSVP.

In November 2008, I visited the San Bruno jail and sat in on an RSVP session. A group counselor and about fifteen inmates sat on plastic chairs in a semicircle, while a white twenty-eight-year-old bank robber named Don described a fight he had been involved in eight years earlier. While the other prisoners looked on and asked questions, two inmates analyzed his story, writing down every incident of violence—physical, sexual, and emotional—that Don reported, from selling drugs at the party, to cheating on his girlfriend, to yelling at the girl he cheated with, to slugging a fellow party-goer with a beer bottle and then kicking him as he fell. The session took two hours, and by the end the entire blackboard was filled with details, not only about whom Don had hurt and how, but about the ways in which, in telling the story, Don had attempted to minimize what he had done or blame others for his actions.

I left out a lot of stuff,” Don told me when I talked to him afterward. Although some inmates volunteer for RSVP, most, like Don, had never thought of themselves as violent before they were assigned to the program by the jail administration.

I knew I had a problem with drugs,” he told me, “so I didn’t mind being in drug rehab. But violent? Me? No way.” After sitting through a few mandatory RSVP sessions and watching other men describe their own violent acts, however, Don told me he began to realize something about himself that he had never known before. He saw how badly he had hurt other people, not only the men he had punched and beaten up over the years but also his own family, who became so terrified of his angry rages that they all but avoided him. When he entered RSVP, he had been in jail for ten months and had barely heard from his parents, and had not spoken to his sister at all. Thirteen weeks later, he was speaking to his parents once a week and to his sister once a day.

While RSVP does not involve direct restitution to victims, it reinforces prisoners’ sense of responsibility by inviting speakers who have been victims of unrelated violence to address the inmates. RSVP also encourages restitution to society at large by linking up post-release RSVP “graduates” with youth violence prevention groups and campaigns such as the San Francisco Giants’ “strike out violence day.”

In 2004, the psychiatrists James Gilligan and Bandy Lee of New York University and Yale, respectively, evaluated RSVP and found that it sharply reduced recidivism rates. The longer the men stayed in the program, the better it seemed to work. Among those who took the full sixteen-week course, 82 percent fewer ended up back in jail a year later, compared to a control group of men who had not been through the program.4

Schwartz deals only in passing with the factors that led to America’s staggering incarceration rate in the first place. When I first arrived at the San Bruno jail, I was taken to a surveillance booth with glass panels on the floor from which it was possible to see an entire open-plan block, or dorm, at once. It was midday, and men in orange sweatsuits were standing around in groups. Some were eating lunch, others were playing ping-pong or watching TV. It was no surprise that most of the men were black. Nationally, one black man in nine between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is incarcerated, a rate six times higher than for whites in the same age group. Some 65 percent of black high school dropouts spend part of their lives behind bars.5 The growth in America’s incarceration rate, in other words, is owing largely to the soaring incarceration of black men. This deeply troubling trend is powerful testimony, if we needed any, to the depth of America’s racial problems.

  1. 1

    Both the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey of high school seniors for 1998/1999 found higher rates of drug use among white teens than black teens.

  2. 2

    Jim Webb, “What’s Wrong with Our Prisons?,” Parade, March 29, 2009.

  3. 3

    M. Keith Chen and Jesse M. Shapiro, “Do Harsher Prison Conditions Reduce Recidivism? A Discontinuity-Based Approach,” American Law and Economics Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2007).

  4. 4

    James Gilligan and Bandy Lee, “The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project: Reducing Violence in the Community Through a Jail-Based Initiative,” Journal of Public Health, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2005).

  5. 5

    One in 100: Behind Bars in America,” a report by the Pew Center on the States, February 2008.

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