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Barriers to Prison Reform
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 11/07/2011

Barrier A leading barrier to prison reform is lack of awareness. Most do not realize the American correctional population has reached ruinous levels, 7.3 million people. Prisons and prisoners are out of sight and out of the public's mind. Issues out of the public's mind tend to be of little concern to lawmakers. Few really know or appreciate the problems prisons, prisoners and wardens face. When criticism is rendered today, it is likely to come from those without practical solutions.

Convicted felons in prison are the least popular major segment of our society. Many law-abiding folks want prison to be miserable. Most disfavor prisoners receiving any amenities or comforts. Public anger boils over when the plight of a particular crime victim is worse than the perpetrator's fate. Law and order politicians get elected. Candidates perceived as soft on crime lose. Accordingly, legislators do not like to appropriate money beyond the minimum requirements. Prison reform based upon continued public funding is almost always doomed to failure.

The biggest barrier to prison reform is the failed model of incarceration we now use. American society abandoned less expensive corporal punishment and with it the high value of public punishment. Because incarceration is hidden from the eyes of the people, it cannot provide the benefit of example to those outside prison. Prisoners live in a human cesspool with the threat of gang violence. Sticking people in cages and hoping they reform has never worked. Recidivism is usually well above 50%. All prosecutors can do is stick people in prison cells for additional years... and the addition of years to a sentence we now know has little deterrent value. The likelihood of getting caught deters crime, but doubling the length of sentences is only marginally effective as a deterrent. Over several decades, we kept pouring on additional years and mandatory sentences, swelling prison populations. We reduced the speed and amount of capital punishment, and so keep murderers in prison for decades or for life. Lawsuits imposed additional requirements on prisons. We've painted ourselves into an expensive corner by abolishing corporal punishment, speedy capital punishment and other methods.

For over 150 years, ever since the invention of the penitentiary, everyone agreed prisoners should work inside prison, for the benefit of the prisoners, the state, crime victims and families outside prison. Prisons used to make money until special interests virtually outlawed prison industries. Prisoners now make products for the state, but cannot participate much in private enterprise due to restrictive federal and state legislation. Only a small fraction of prisoners work full-time. Mainly, prisoners are the largest group of full-ride welfare recipients in the nation.

Societies eventually do what makes economic sense with their prisoners. Therefore, we know change is coming. Right now, it costs $150 million every day just for the prison expenses, not including rising costs for other segments of the criminal justice system, lost opportunity costs or the collateral social costs undermining our entire society.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner is the author of the new book "Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison"
Reprinted with permission from ezinearticles.com.

Other articles by Gleissner:


  1. Mick Harry on 12/29/2011:

    I completely second your opinions. The article is extremely accurate, precise and focuses on the most important problem the jail managers are facing these days. Not just public but the managers are also ignorant about what is going on in the prisons due to the increasing number of prisons. Although, we cannot reduce the number of prisoners, managing them is must. I would suggest that the management must take the help of technology to manage the offenders better. Use of something like a jail management system, an EHR system or prison management system will help us manage better and make the prisons a better place for both the offenders as well as managers.

  2. Editor @ Corrections.com on 11/07/2011:

    To the editor: John Dewar Gleissner's article, Barrier to Prison Reform, is indeed accurate. The public is blissfully ignorant of what goes on in prison. So was I until I became a statistic in 2002 and experienced it first hand. Previously I was a college graduate, educator, business owner and community leader. Now I am an ex-felon and activist, director of a non-profit organization that brings educational programs into prisons. I am also the author of a memoir, The Slumber Party from Hell, about my prison journey. At every opportunity, I speak to organizations, groups and book clubs about who and how we incarcerate in this country and what it is costing the tax payer in money and humanity. I wish I had a solution. I don't. However, in the United States of America we can do better, much better. After my prison experience, I know it is my responsibility to raise awareness. That brings us full circle to Mr. Gleissner's premise. Nothing is black or white as the criminal justice system portrays it. Like life, it is many shades of gray. Thank you for contributing to the awareness. Sincerely, Sue EllenAllen

  3. Keyman512US on 11/07/2011:

    ...An excerpt from a conversation in which "I tried to offer council in regards to a dispute in dealings between two men..." "...A troubled mind is ___________________" finish the sentence or finish the saying....your choice! ...A different part of the same conversation: What you need to understand is that your _____________ (Let's...for conversation purposes insert the term "fellow man") has a troubled mind. His mind is full of thoughts that are troubling him. It is affecting those around him...affecting people in the worst way. Anger is the worst human emotion...the worst human passion. I say passion because if you understood the "Human Condition" the way someone with more knowledge does you would be in a better position to help your fellow man. Unfortunately your fellow man is too proud to ask anyone to help him. That's why I have offered assistance. Now assistance is different than help. Here's why: When you help someone nothing is expected in return...period. But wait someone might say "That is not entirely true" If I were to "Help" your fellow man I "would expect something in return" But what??? The "UNIVERSAL EXPECTATION" ... When you help someone the only thing that you should "EXPECT IN RETURN" is that they repay the favor by "PAYING IT FORWARD....THE UNIVERSAL EXPECTATION". By that I mean the favor should be repaid IN KIND...KINDNESS, in other words "...To genuinely help someone in return for being helped yourself" Keep in mind you will not find this definition anywhere in print....except right here in this "note": "ASSISTANCE" (n.) or (v.) That is the question... Now try to understand where I'm going with this. The common definition lacks a higher meaning to say the least. How would I define assistance??? Definition: "Assistance is when two people agree to help one another in an act of good faith lending to the fact of continuing and neverending improvement in the overall benefit of mankind..." to which I would add: "Assistance is when two people come to terms with their human condition and agreement is forged to a continuance so that their relationship, whatever that may be, may be industious, productive and be rewarding to all those around them to which: " Now the rest of this remains un-written for the moment... ...Assistance? Why did I define it this way??? Why am I posting it here??? Something has been lost in this great nation of ours. Unfortunately, today our legal system our entire justice system is "bogged down" with a "never ending docket" (I'm sure that the "HONORABLE" presiding in our courts) and my reference to them (again I am trying to choose my words carefully or at the very least "appropriately") would be in agreement. Why am I saying all this? Because I'm sure that those who preside shake their heads everyday and ask "Why can people not resolve their issues before entering a court of Law..." Unfortunately as a society people are not acting in mature manners..."manners"...What do we hope to teach our children? "manners". Our society is out of control...would you not agree? Recently I celebrated my 38th birthday...my life lesson? Everday we must make strides to better ourselves. Unfortunately it seems....society collectively chooses not to learn today, from experiences of yesterday to make a better tommorow... "Society collectively chooses not to learn today, from experiences of yesterday to make a better tommorow..." Sincerly, ...Trully and Humbly.

  4. Keyman512US on 11/07/2011:

    "Obediance to Law Is Liberty" ...This is how I would begin the discussion with others on the subject of "Prison Reform". Unfortunately to reform prisons. A greater reform is needed. If you want to trully reform prisons....society in general must reform itself first. Here is "my two cents" on the subject: ...Wait a minute, please, let me re-phrase my words. "...Here are some of my thoughts on the subject": What did I just do? I did what few people "in this day and age do". (I did what few people FAIL to do, and that is try to choose their words more carefully. I'll explain that later...) ...Numerous times I have noticed a plaque on the wall at the "local courthouse". It's a district court...Northern Worcester if I'm correct.I have been in that building many times. "Sometimes in defense of myself...sometimes in defense of others". Most people do not appreciate the signifigance of walking into (entering)a courthouse. Our nation is founded on priciples. Not many people understand the concept of "Justice". Justice starts with how a person goes about their daily life, and more importantly how they interact with fellow citizens. Sadly, the education system does not teach from an early age the importance of "rules to law". (Children learn to, or at least should learn to respect parental direction "rules for a child" Respect for authority....) "Rules to law, or rules of law?"or thirdly... ...I could go on and on talking like that but not now...perhaps later. Children for the most part resist authority. As a society, we hope as people grow older they learn to stop resisting authortiy...and ultimately RESPECT authority. Something I have learned is this: When it comes to "showing respect for the law" most people fail time and time again. "How to talk your way out of a ticket, etc etc" Sometimes you hear about such talk, from people, from websites, from...well you probably get the point by now. On a couple of occasions I have been "pulled over" and one particualar time that sticks out in my mind was leaving work and getting pulled over on the way home. The officer walked up and began the conversation by "talking in a loud voice" (yelling at me actually)and proceeded to "grab my license and registration from my hand in a rather unpleasant manner" and returned to his vehicle. After several minutes he returned and handed me my license and registration with a ticket (written citation). The look on his face was still one of sterness to say the least. I couldn't let it go without saying something...but why??? Did I get angry with this particualar officer? No. I did something that shocked him to say the least. I very calmy and clearly started by saying "SIR...I appologize..." and continued from there. What I said to him was "eloquent" you might (be able to) say. The look on his face changed and he then said "You shoulda' said that when I first walked up to your vehicle" I again apologized...it was at this point the officer realized that "I was calling my own actions into question" so to speak. What most people fail to realize is...fail to make the connection with is that a "Cop" is still an "Officer of the Law". Having military experience I can understand the signifigance. On occasion I have heard people refer to being issued a citation "Wait till I take it to court...I'm going to" Bad choice of words...bad choice of intentions... Back to the story...The officer then in turn did something that shocked me: "You know what...request a hearing and take it to court" he said to me....and then said "Have a good night" and walked off. I just stopped for a minute and then thought about what he said...everyday, ultimately to the time I walked into the courtroom. I "played dumb" when I walked in and "stated my case" but I tried to choose, choose my words "appropriately". When asked I explained things from my own perspective...and then got so worked up the words just started coming out and were hinging on being offensive to the court. I stopped mid sentence and said "I appologize your honor I mean no dis-respect I just feel...I don't know how to describe it so I'm just going to stop right here and then you can decide what to do..." He paused for a moment then said a few words and then said to me something in closing I will never forget. I still repeat those words on occassion to this day "...The right of way is something you give...not something you take..." I paused and then said "Thank you your honor" and was "dismissed". ...What I learned from this??? I am continuing to learn... Prison reform? Society must reform itself first. Attitudes towards the entire incarceration process must change. "Judge Not" I'm going to start the saying but stay well away from it. Why? Because the average citizen should stay away from "offering their two cents on the subject...unless:" Unless they are willing to be part of a solution instead of "dictating demands". People serving time...should not have to serve over and over...Please, let me say that again: "People serving time should not have to serve over and over..." Perhaps a better choice of words would be "A man serving a sentence should not have to serve it over and over" An even better choice of words: "A (convicted by a court of law) person that is..." Better? "When convicted by a court of law, and then ordered to be incarcerated for a length of time a person should then be evaluated as to their overall condition. Upon determination by officers of the court it should then be determined if the incarceration is beneficial to the detainee and whether or not it is beneficial to society as a whole..." What am I trying to say??? Offer the offender the chance to "redeem themselves"....Ultimately?? ..Ultimately our legal system...our justice system must work together more effectively. "..The right to council is afforded to anyone accused in a court of law...a basic premise of law affored by the Constitution of the United Stated of America..." Ask yourself this "Why then..." Why as a society do we not observe how a detainee conducts themself while incarcerated. Before you "attack me" on this point, I can understand that there are parole boards, Warden supervision, etc. etc... But why not "Offer council while incarcerated???" What kind of council? As part of the trial process an accused person has the right to "A trial by a jury of their peers.." Let's expand on that if we could... While incarcerated...why not review the incarcerated by "A jury of peers". Just an idea. "Warden's Challenge"...Formulate a plan and assemble a team to "review the records of those in your charge". Perhaps retired officers of the court, retired officers of the law, perhaps interns...students of the "Higher learning process"...College students...criminal justice students...and then go from there... ...Hopefully I have offered something in the form of tools to "effectively institute change for the betterment of society...perhaps the betterment of mankind...." ...It is my sincerest hope that my "outsiders view" might perhaps have sparked something...something for a positive change. Hopefully this "writing will recieve further review". Hopefully by different assorted members of our "Justice System". As a resident of the "Commonwealth of Massachusetts" I hope that effective change can begin here..right here. Perhaps I myself will pursue higher education and ultimately be part of the process to Help...let me re-phrase that to assist in our justice system... ...If I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me...I look forward to "further disscussion(s)" Sincerly, ...Trully and Humbly.

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