In October, Pope Francis visited the United States and addressed the topic of the American prison system: “I too could be here if I had made different decisions,” the Pope said.
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This is powerful statement for a world figure to make, and gives us an idea about views of the current prison situation in the U.S. from abroad. Going back to recent history, during the 1960s, the mainstream discussion was about a “nation without prisons,” quite the opposite of the current message. The goal was to reserve incarceration for dangerous criminals and to substitute prison with reintegration and drug rehabilitation programs that would keep people from committing further offences.
In order to ensure that a person who has committed a crime would change his/her behavior and become a productive citizen, the thinking went, we needed to resolve many social problems and improve the environments that tend to contribute to illegal activities.
But something has changed drastically since the 1960s. The “Zero tolerance” approach to crime, the “War on Drugs” and the hardening of sentencing has changed. Due to these changes in the laws and the current approach to crime, the prison population has grown exponentially, from 380,000 inmates in 1975 to the stunning number of 2.4 million currently. The Prison Policy Initiative reported last year that 2.4 million prisoners are locked up in the United States. In 15 years, the U.S. prison population tripled, according to French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, of the University of California – Berkeley, making the U.S. the number one country, per capita, in incarcerating its citizens. There is no democratic country in the world that has accelerated its prison population by these percentages.
About the American Prison Writing Archive
The Advanced Spanish Composition and Conversation class at Boise State University, in the spring of 2015, worked on a service learning project with the ISCC (Idaho State Correctional Center) prison in Boise. The goal of this ongoing project is to give a voice to incarcerated Hispanic people, who often do not have one, while allowing researchers, politicians and taxpayers to know how the prison system really works so informed decisions can be made to improve it.
Doran Larson from Hamilton College, NY created the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) where inmates´ personal reflective essays can be posted in order to serve these goals.
Students translate prison letters and essays written by Hispanic inmates from Spanish to English and the APWA posts them in its archive. As a result, Boise State students learn first hand about incarcerated Hispanic people and this experience of translating helped them break their stereotypes about the prisoners.
We need to remember that 54 percent of the people incarcerated today are in for violent crimes, according to Wacquant, while the other 46 percent are drug users and small-scale delinquents (mostly related to drug use). Probation has also changed, and is now being denied to a larger percentage of inmates, Wacquant explains in his 2009 book Prisons of Poverty.
Meanwhile, according to Wacquant, money spent on social services and education has been cut and jobs are less stable, with lower pay and fewer benefits. This means that we have more people falling through the cracks due to unemployment, school dropout, mental health issues, poor choices and lack of the supervision and psychological care to provide prevention. On one hand, the message out there proclaims that public education is too expensive and that social service funds are misappropriated while not much money is used for prevention. On the other hand, the only public sector expense that has risen, according to Wacquant, is the penitentiary with a 325 percent increment from 1979 to 1990 and 612 percent in construction of new prisons.
However, pioneering research done by Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer and many others demonstrates that more incarceration does not decrease crime. There are strong correlations between unemployment or the worsening of the job market and increasing incarceration rates, according to Wacquant.
This is not a problem unique to the U.S.; the trend of mass incarceration is also seen across much of the EU, even though it is at a smaller scale. While all this has rapidly changed, the average Joe has no say in the policy making and has no way to know how his taxes are being spent in his name. The question is, how can we address a problem if we do not know it?
AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE SYSTEM
Providing transparency and allowing the general public and researchers to know what is really happening in the prison is the goal of the American Prison Writing Archive. If politicians, researchers and regular citizens know the factors that resulted in Americans’ incarceration and how the prison helps them — or does not help them — become better citizens, they will be able to make better decisions on the prison system.
This archive was created by Hamilton College English Professor Doran Larson with the collaboration of Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative and involves undergraduate students. Dr. Larson teaches creative writing in the prison and classes on prison writing at Hamilton College. He has published essays written by incarcerated people across the U.S. in the book Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. The book’s name refers to the fact that if we combine all the inmates in the U.S. into a city, it would be the fourth biggest city in the country, according to Wacquant.
When Doran Larson came to Boise State in the spring of 2014 to present his American Prison Writing Archive, I approached him about connecting students to serve a community need and further his project, and he gladly accepted. In the spring of 2015, my advanced Spanish students did the first translations into English of essays written in Spanish by inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Center (ISCC). The students were guided and edited by the professional translator Oihana Andion and these letters will be posted at the APWA.
The letters include testimonials such as this one, translated from Spanish:
Here, inside, there are good things and also bad, like there are outdoors. Here and I can learn many good things. And I have decided to learn everything good that I can because when I leave, I want to be a renewed man and not commit the same errors I committed, because the crime that I committed has cost me a lot. I lost my family and this, you can’t imagine how much it hurts. This has taught me that I have to change, now that I have the opportunity and the time: well, I would like to tell more of my life but I already have to go back to work.
Some of the prison letters illustrate frustrations that prisoners all over the world feel:
…In the conditions that I live, the space is very small; there is three beds in a space of 8 square feet. The doctor, when someone has a health problem, they go to see the doctor and they only give him some pills for the pain and the truth is that they ignore us, unless they see that you are dying. The food is really bad, very small portions. We got lunch taken away, and replaced with a paper bag that truly has almost nothing in it. If you could only come in and see the reality in here. The commissary here sells everything very expensive and there are very little options, they barely have anything good. For example a jar of Folgers coffee is 12 dollars. The sentencing, we get here and do our regular time, we go to parole, and they might say do a couple of years, or they could also say to full sentence. I ask them to please get into this matter more thoroughly. For example, in my case my sentence was one year, I completed it, and they gave me two more. I don’t have an open date, and I don’t have any infractions, I’m cooperating with everything they have asked, and I don’t know what is going on with my case. Thanks, I hope that they do something about this; in the end we are humans as well.
Inmates wrote about how they came to the United States, their health, conditions inside the prison; many wrote about the poor healthcare they receive. Most wrote about their families:
I feel a great void in my heart because I have not met the other three; I only know them through pictures. I also feel happy because the oldest of my grandchildren is already 9 years old, and he tells me that he wants to see me. And the other one, a girl, is 5 years old, and she also tells me that she wants to see me. I have hope that when I get out of this place I can be reunited with all my children, grandchildren, my wife, and of course my parents. I pray to God that my mom is able to hold up and doesn’t give up on her illness so I can see her again.
Some mentioned troubled race relations in prison:
Many times here there is a lot of violence because, like everywhere, there are also rules between us, rules that sometimes are stupid. But I can’t do anything because when I arrived here they were already there, but I try to keep myself occupied in the mornings. I go to school to try to learn English so when I leave I’ll be able to have more opportunities for work. After my class I go to work at the kitchen and when I leave I do my exercise routine because, although I don’t like violence, you have to be ready for when you have to resolve a lack of respect. For me, it would be enough with talking, but here it is not and you have to adapt to the place where you are living in. Two years ago I had to fight because someone talked bad about me and I know that this wasn’t a reason but I had to do it. If not, they hit me.
As a result of this service learning experience, the students gained insight into the prison through the letters themselves but also through readings on the prison system and reflective activities facilitated by Mike Stefancic, assistant director of Service Learning at Boise State. They also gained hands-on experience in the use of real-life Spanish, translation practice and a deeper capacity for reflection and critical thinking. And they had the opportunity to visit the writers at the prison and to chat with them about Boise State and the education program inside the prison.
¨I would admit that I fell into the stereotypical mindset that people in prison are somehow different from other people who populate society, that the majority of them are probably reckless and dangerous criminals,” wrote student Nicole Dewey. “My experience with Service Learning has shown me how wrong I was. Something about translating the exact words of fellow human beings breaking a cultural and societal barrier by relaying their thoughts and struggles in another language, has proven to be quite enlightening.”
David Mehlhaff, the principal and education program manager at ISCC invited us to visit the prison, and provided us a tour of the job-training programs and educational classes offered and an opportunity to have a conversation with the English language students who had written the essays. This opportunity was an eye-opener for my students who realized that people in prison are just ¨people¨ like they are. They have goals and feelings, like any person outside the prison and most of them have not committed a violent crime.
“I previously thought that the majority of the prisoners did not want to change their behavior or were not necessarily capable of doing so,” wrote student Ashley Potzernitz.. “However, in reality, most of them realize that they have made mistakes and they want to become better people. They are taking the opportunity and time to learn new things in the educational system provided by the prison. They strive to grow as individuals so that they can successful upon release. Their families give them strength and they want to improve for them.”
Meeting with the students from Boise State was a very enriching experience for the inmates as well. Some inmates wrote reflections about the visit and its importance to their lives. For some of them it was their first visit in six years.
¨One of the most popular misconceptions about prison is that nothing good ever happens in this place and that could never be so far from the truth,” one inmate wrote. “In that short period of time being up there in front of normal people and my peers made me feel normal for the first time in six years. I felt free from ignorance and prejudice as is the feeling very often portrayed by this place.”
This experience reminded them that they are still human beings and they hope that the rest of the society can see them that way as well. Perhaps these letters will convey some of that hope to those on the outside.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.