Correction Hard to Do in "Correctional Facilities"

The following article appeared in the May 22, 2014 edition of the Springfield News-Leader.  It is written by Jennifer Baker, the Director of the Robert J. Murney Clinic of the Forest Institute.  Jennifer baker can be contacted via email at JBaker@forest.edu.

"A few weeks ago Cornealious "Mike" Anderson was released from prison in Missouri after serving only a few months of his 13-year sentence.

You may have heard the story.  Anderson was convicted of armed robbery in 2000, but due to a clerical error he was never incarcerated.  The Missouri Department of Corrections did not discover its error until July 2013, the time of his scheduled release.  They responded by sending eight U.S. marshals to his home in a middle-class neighborhood to arrest him.  There they found a business owner and married father of four who is active in his church and coaches his son's youth football team.

Having directed the Mental Health and Corrections Conference associated with Forest Institute the last several years, I could not help but wonder how Anderson's life journey might have ended differently had he actually been incarcerated.

We call our prisons "correctional facilities," but I'm not sure much "correcting" takes place.  I'm not arguing against prisons, but I am concerned that being incarcerated may do little to actually improve community safety or enable "returning citizens" to become the kind of man Anderson became without the benefit of "correction."

Reality for most formerly incarcerated includes difficulty securing employment -- even though a job is the best deterrent to reoffending.  They are often estranged from their families, even though a strong network of support is critical.  The child support they owe continues to accrue while locked away, so if they secure a job, a few weeks later they find so much of their wage is garnished it's impossible to live on what is left.  This makes it even more difficult for them to see themselves as a key contributor to their child's well-being -- another important deterrent to further crime.

Ellis McSwain, state head of probation and parole, spoke at the MHCC last month.  He told us a larger proportion of the state's budget went to corrections than any other line item.  With 31,000 individuals incarcerated in a state correctional facility and 70,000-plus on probation or parole, considerable resources are required to fund the business of corrections.

The money might be considered "worth it" if serving time in a correctional facility made a positive impact in one's life.  Sadly, it has the opposite effect in many cases.  Instead of improving the lives of those who are locked up and pointing them in a different direction, two0thirds reoffend and return to prison within three years.  Rather than learning how to live a different kind of life, the experience of incarceration often teaches people how to be better criminals.

Anderson's story calls into question even more the wisdom of incarcerating the number of people we do -- more than 2 million in the U.S.  While I don't question the need for some to spend the remainder of their life in prison, I wonder if the 600,000-plus returning to our communities every year are worse for their experience.  There must be better ways to use their time in a correctional facility so that more might turn out like Anderson -- a man who managed to be rehabilitated in an entirely different way."