There is a pretty good consensus that our society has to do a better job when it comes to the criminal justice system. By every meaningful indicator here in Idaho we are failing our communities and the people we incarcerate. It’s right there in the recidivism numbers: 35% of prisoners in Idaho who are release will go back. Many of them will go back more than once.
If that number astonishes you, I suppose it should. But if you have any familiarity with corrections, you will know that this has been the norm for quite some time. Too long.
In 2003, the first year I paid any attention to these things, the Idaho Department of Correction budget was $248.7 million. There were 5,825 prisoners. 57% of all prisoners were nonviolent. Growth over the previous decade had been an average 10% per year.
Fast forward to 2013, a decade later. The budget was $201 million. There were 5,270 prisoners. 51% of all prisoners were nonviolent. Something had taken place that had reduced budgets and reduced prisoner populations.
But it didn’t get better, it got worse.
Today, there are over 8,000 prisoners in Idaho’s prisons. The place is so overcrowded that there are over 700 Idaho inmates housed in private prisons in Texas. The budget is $246.4 million. About 75% of prisoners today are nonviolent.
All of this in spite of the Idaho Legislature passing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2014.
Idaho has had 5 years to adequately address new ways to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the revolving door of their facilities. Theoretically, that would lead to lower prison populations and decreasing budgets. It hasn’t.
For the past two years, Idaho prison officials have pushed for greater reentry services for those released on probation or parole in the hopes that they will help bridge the gap for those reentering society after a period of incarceration. They have now opened reentry centers, fully staffed through grants, in Boise and Idaho falls. More are on the way. They have quietly created a network of community volunteers to essentially sponsor parolees and hold their hand as they navigate the stressful and complicated world of supervised release.
Still, the numbers have not changed.
So, why have efforts that changed the dynamic of prison, the parole system and the conditions a parolee encounters when they are released, all failed to make a noticeable difference on recidivism? To the untrained eye much has changed but to the shrewd observer, nothing has really changed.
When you get arrested, they take you to jail and book you in. This involves a cold concrete cell, plastic shoes and an ill-fitting jumpsuit. You’ve stopped being a person at the beginning of the process and are now a number. Your number is checked off a sheet for meals, at scheduled counts, when you receive a razor to shave. Your identity – your first name, degree, place as a sibling/child/spouse, and all the things that make you YOU are unimportant in this world. You are housed in huge rooms filled with bunk beds and pretend mattresses covered in plastic. Some are forced to sleep on the floor due to overcrowding. Everything is in bulk. Food lacks flavor. Sometimes things are out of date. There are no windows. No nature. Even the “outdoor” recreation opportunities happen in a room that simply has no roof. You use the toilet where everyone in the room can see you. This is the same treatment regardless of whether you have been convicted or are awaiting trial.
There is nothing humanizing about this environment.
You may wait months, sometimes over a year, just to get resolution on your case. If you are found innocent then you get nothing in exchange for your experience except your freedom. If you are found guilty, you are likely to wait several weeks, if not months, to be transported to the Receiving and Diagnostic Unit (in Boise for men, in Pocatello for women). You are stripped naked, searched and placed in a new jumpsuit and plastic shoes for the ride. By the time you get to prison, you’ve been in flux for months.
At the prisons they have it down to a science. Buses and transport vans full of newly convicted felons reach the prison nearly every day. A dozen people shuffle off the bus and wait for their name to be called and issued a new number. Another strip search occurs, sometimes in a room full of other prisoners. Used underwear are issue to you and more ill-fitting clothing – usually scrubs. You will have to be poked and prodded for a few weeks then be assigned to a housing unit. You will shower in front of others. Use the bathroom in front of others. Visit your loved ones in front of others. You will be pressured to join gangs or have sex. You will be threatened and encouraged to fight. You will be called names. If you fight back, then you earn a place of respect amongst many of the inmates. You also set back your chances of getting parole. You’re assigned to a case manager that has only generic answers based on IDOC guidelines and doesn’t care about your personal characteristics. You will be allowed to move back and forth from school, chapel and work (if you can find it), every hour on the hour. Except these movements are rarely on time. Fights occur regularly and the entire facility is locked down. Institutional counts are messed up and must be done over. Tours of important people must be accommodated. You will be touched inappropriately by guards often. Your genitalia will be the most popular spot because it is also the best hiding spot for contraband. There won’t be enough pay phones for you to call home. You will have to wait in line for…everything. Your personal belongings will be touched, searched, thrown on the floor and lost. You will have no dignity, no privacy and there are no counseling services in prison.
Somewhere around nine months from your parole eligibility date, you will be enrolled in classes specifically tailored to your case plan. Only a handful of standard case plans exist, so most folks take the same classes. Sometimes you’re encouraged to do homework or role plays with honesty and an open heart and mind. But you also take these classes with people who live on your unit and will no doubt make fun of you and tell everyone every secret you reveal, so you keep as much of your personal details to yourself as possible. It doesn’t make a difference. Regardless of how much you open up, you are guaranteed to pass the class if you show up and do something.
Around 6 months prior to being eligible for release you will be scheduled for a hearing before the Parole Commission. If you have a certain type of crime, you will have this hearing in person. If not, your fate will be decided by a packet of information that the Commission reviews. They ask you tough questions, some that they already know, to test your truthfulness. And some they don’t know but ask to see if you’re prepared for freedom. You’ve likely prepared for that day for a while, so you have received every piece of advice from your fellow prisoner on the most effective things to say. There is a good chance you will receive parole. The majority do.
But parole is being given to someone who is far different than the person who came in on that bus initially. The person who is being released is deemed fit for society again by the Parole Commission but every single one of them has been put through hell. They’ve been abused in the worst ways. They’ve been groped, demeaned, deprived, dehumanized and abused. Some do not even describe it that way, but the scars it leaves on them are the same as the scars on those of us who can articulate what happened to us.
So now you’ve been released. If you’re lucky, you’re from Boise and you can catch a bus for $2. You can get to work and to your treatment meetings. Your parole officer will either breathe down your neck because they think that is the best way to weed out those “who want it.” Or you will get a PO who doesn’t have time to worry about you because they have 80 other parolees to supervise as well. If you go back, you go back, makes no difference to their case load or paycheck at the end of the day.
If you’re unlucky, you will have no family support, no money and live in a part of Idaho with no transportation choices or options for you to get stable. You will work really hard to do all the things you need to do to make your rent, pay your cost of supervision, and stay free. It will be hard. Sometimes you will want to give up. You will apply for jobs, hundreds of jobs, and receive no callbacks. Your criminal conviction will be an automatic disqualifier for many. Even menial labor jobs will not want you. It is hard to pay your rent, cost of supervision and cell phone bill with only sporadic work. You will find it harder to get friends and family to drive you to the places you need to be. People look at you funny when you tell them you were in prison. You can’t afford to move out of your halfway house yet, but even if you could, nobody will rent to you. You really just want to get high again. And you will.
All of this is too much and you really don’t know where to ask for help because you’ve never asked for help before. It’s out there, but being vulnerable to people is usually used against you to punish you so you don’t really trust anyone. You get away with getting high for a little while. When you get caught, they make you do extra classes to help you get sober. You are forced to go to AA or Celebrate Recovery or something, anything, to help you get sober. Except they don’t help. You can’t pay your bills with AA. You’re tired of being rejected. You just give up a little more every day.
Eventually you stop showing up for work because that’s where they are going to look for you first now that you have a warrant for your arrest for violating your parole. You didn’t want to go to jail for getting high. You also didn’t want to stop getting high because it’s the only thing that makes your life worth living. You think of suicide. You think of running away. You’re too depressed to muster the energy to do anything but get high.
Eventually you end up going back. You either get caught stealing to support your habit or you get caught with drugs. Either way, you tend to go back with new crimes on top of the old ones. Many do. Thirty-five percent don’t make it on parole. They just aren’t equipped to do it.
Thirty-five percent make it.
If we have only a 65% success rate then we are doing something wrong. Yes, some will not be able to change and will continue this cycle. But if we stop dehumanizing prisoners from the very moment, they enter the criminal justice system, then we can make it easier for them to be rehabilitated. Studies have shown that any incarceration in Idaho will likely lead to recidivism. And the number is tied to length of stay. Riders, who typically serve 6 months, will have a greater success rate than someone who has been to prison. But someone who was arrested and given probation is far less likely to violate the terms of their probation and go to prison. Prison begets prison. https://csgjusticecenter.org/jr/id/.
Prisons make people worse, not better. But, if we have to confine people to prison, then we must ensure that the treatment and conditions they receive there is humane and conducive to rehabilitation. Anything less will just repeat the results you see now: a massive fail rate of those returning from prison to society. The staff at all levels of criminal justice but especially IDOC must do better. They must treat medical needs, mental and emotional needs, and criminogenic needs if recidivism is to be impacted. That will take a bottom-up approach at the Department. One where the staff are held to account for falsifying logs, for terrorizing prisoners and being indifferent to their needs. One where mental health treatment is more than a pill. One where sexual assault is not the primary enforcement technique for contraband. One where prisoners feel like people who are in prison, not prisoners who happen to be people.
If you want less crime, less taxpayer money spent on criminal justice, and lower recidivism rates then I’ve told you what it will take. But the Department will not do this on their own. Good folks have tried to change the IDOC from the top down and have failed. This time, the revolution must occur from the bottom up. Until that happens, until the Department changes the abusive and harmful culture within the prison walls perpetuated by their own staff, there is no hope for reentry. It is impossible to take mistreated people and then help them become whole again on the scale that is occurring here. Mentoring and case management by citizens and community organizations can only do so much. We need the Department to get on board with meaningful, systemic change in order to make success after release a reality for more than just 65%. If something doesn’t happen, then the truth is that reentry services are pointless. We cannot make a big enough difference systemically to continue with reentry services when we have to fix broken human beings one at a time while the Department is harming them in massive numbers.
We need change. We need community involvement. And we need accountability from the Department for their role in making the folks in their care worse, not better.
By David Morgan Lund