America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?

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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,…


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