Wrongly Imprisoned
by Jay B. Van Story
May 7, 2005

Exorbitant Prison Stays Amount to Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Just one day in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for a man or woman who has been falsely convicted. However, it is equally cruel when a person is kept imprisoned long past the time necessary for him to pay for his crime and be rehabilitated. 

The Quakers of Pennsylvania came up with the idea of penitentiaries in the late 18th century as an alternative to cruel physical punishments such as mutilation, branding and flogging. However, the exorbitant prison stays many Texas prisoners are being forced to endure are perhaps even more unreasonable than the transitory floggings of long ago. Texas prisoners are being deprived of all hope. The same goes for prisoners in many other states, such as Ohio. 

Penitentiaries are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created - to foster penitence. Instead, they're breeding bitterness. They're costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year in Texas alone, taking funds away from very worthwhile and necessary education, health and welfare programs for children. 

The problem is that parole has been virtually eliminated in Texas. As it continues to be delayed or denied altogether for most prisoners, their attachments to their families and communities steadily erode. As any sociologist will tell you, this makes it much more difficult for prisoners to reintegrate into society once they finally are released. 

I have witnessed the immense pain, hurt and hopelessness many of my fellow prisoners suffer as they work very hard to become eligible for parole by maintaining a good prison conduct record, completing all the rehabilitation programs offered, obtaining college degrees, yet continue to be denied parole time after time. Often, their wives try to wait for them to be released. Their kids come and see them in crowded, noisy visiting rooms for a couple of hours every so often, just to get a glimpse of the daddy they miss so much, and fare so poorly without. The kids say goodbye at the end of each visit, wanting to believe that their daddy will be home soon, since he's coming up for parole once again. 

As parole becomes more and more of a lost hope, many prisoners lose much more than their hope. Many lose their wives. Some lose their kids to violence or prison. Children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to get into trouble. 

What's the solution? Greatly expand release, of eligible prisoners to halfway houses. Build more. Contract out with private industry. Unlike prisons, half- way houses pay for themselves, in more ways than one. Other eligible prisoners could be released to family members' homes and kept under strict supervision to allay community concerns. This is more feasible and effective than ever, thanks to new GPS tracking technology. It would be a virtual prison, without the exorbitant cost. 

Such prisoners would be able to rebuild positive family and community ties before they entirely disintegrate. They would be able to work and pay taxes, rather than cost taxpayers $44 or more a day each in prison. 

After proving themselves capable of successfully reintegrating into society, each parolee could gradually be put under less and less restrictive supervision. This is a much better solution than keeping people in prison for an exorbitant amount of time, and then suddenly releasing them with no supervision at all, as we often do now. 

In addition to a significant reduction of both the prison budget and the recidivism rate, these practical and positive changes would have the benefit of creating and maintaining order in our prisons. It would make prisons much safer for prison staff. There would be many fewer assaults and escape attempts. It would create a major incentive for every prisoner to straighten out their life. Furthermore, it would eliminate or sharply reduce the chronic prison staff shortage in Texas. Units could be mothballed, especially the older, staff-intensive ones. The land that some units reside on could be sold or leased at great profit, since many older units that were built in rural areas are now surrounded by valuable residential and commercial real estate. 

There would be many long-range benefits. Fewer children of prisoners would turn to a life of crime, since many of them would have both parents at home a lot sooner. Decades of research by sociologists have shown that the single most important factor in preventing children from growing up to be criminals is good parenting. But first, the parents have to be there. 

No one is advocating paroling any prisoner before they serve an amount of time that fits their crime, and before they become eligible in all respects. This is about being decent and fair, and using common sense. In many ways, society cannot afford to keep people locked up forever. There is "tough on crime," and there is "smart on crime." Surely, a balance can be found somewhere. In between, before the state and its collective moral conscience go bankrupt. 

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