Prisoners Fighting Fires

By Dianne Frazee-Walker  Image courtesy grist.org

The California prison system is stepping up to the plate by fighting fire with fire.  Yes, that’s right — they are saving tax-payer’s money and providing low level offenders with valuable skills and purpose by putting them to work fighting wildfires. Another side benefit of this ingenious project is California’s prisons are emptying out because these inmates are earning earlier release dates and are not reoffending.

Demetrius Barr is one of the first Los Angeles County inmates to be granted the opportunity to leave his confined jail cell and enter a natural atmosphere of breathtaking landscapes and spacious campsites. Not only can Barr help save this precious land from the destruction of fire, but his own life can be salvaged from the unforgiving world of crack dealing.

Image courtesy justicenotjails.org

Barr doesn’t get to enjoy this new type of freedom for nothing. He receives this privilege by maintaining his fitness and best behavior, and being willing to fight thousand-degree flames. The best reward for fulfilling his commitment to the Pitches Detention center where he was trained, is earning good-time credits that will permit him to decrease his seven-year sentence by 35%. This would also insure that Barr “has what it takes” when confronted with a challenge as significant as a raging forest fire. 

The general public would be surprised if they realized about 50% of California wildfire fighters are prisoners and a few of them are incarcerated women. Capt. Jorge Santana, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) liaison who supervises the camps, confirms these inmates are dedicated to changing their lives while serving the public and are saving the state over $1 billion a year. Inmate firefighters are contributing a major positive impact on California’s financial and environmental well-being.

Read More

Shaming Offenders Misses the Point; Rehabilitate Them

By Christopher Zoukis

Over the past several years, a number of criminal justice and social commentators have discussed the idea of shaming or guilting as an alternative sanction for minor criminal wrongdoing.  They have suggested that shaming or guilting is less expensive, more effective, and allows the offender to stay in the community — thus enabling them to continue to work, take care of their children, and try to make amends for their crimes.  While the ideas of shaming and guilting are an interesting form of social chastisement, they miss the point by simply making the criminal feel bad about their actions, while failing to treat them for what ills them.  This might make us feel better since the lawbreaker is receiving just deserts (retribution for their crimes), but fails to fix the problem in the first place.  And this places Americans in a precarious position: feeling good about the shaming of the offender, but leaving us with a false sense of security since the underlying problem has not been resolved.

Several years back, in a Boston Globe essay entitled “Shame Is Worth a Try,” Dan Kahan suggested that offenders should be shamed for their crimes, and that these shamings will change the offender’s behavior and make them no longer engage in such activities.  He supported his belief by stating that the “sanctions are much cheaper than jail” and “allow the offender to continue earning an income so he can compensate his victim, meet his child-support obligations, and the like.”  Kahan argued that “shame is cheap and effective and frees up scarce prison space for the most serious offenses.”

The examples presented by Kahan are colorful and intriguing, particularly for victims of crime.  Employees in Wisconsin who steal from their employers “might be ordered to wear a sandwich board proclaiming [their] offense[s].”  In Florida and Texas, drunk drivers “might be required to place conspicuous ‘DUI’ bumper stickers on [their] car[s].”  And in Virginia, a person who refuses to “make [] child support payments,” might “find that [their] vehicle has been immobilized with an appropriately colored boot (pink if the abandoned child is a girl, blue if a boy).”  For many, such punishments bring a warm sense of retribution for the offender getting what’s coming to them.  After all, who doesn’t want to see a deadbeat dad held accountable for his failure to pay for his own children or a person convicted of a DUI forced to slap bright orange bumper stickers to their car proclaiming that they are a drunk?

Read More

Hunger And Education

By Tom Wright 

Learning is a function of hunger. What? That’s right, the hungrier a student is for the mind food you are offering them, the better the learner they are. And they will also digest what you have to offer more readily as well. Regardless of how “smart” you think they are, or what their I. Q. is. Digestion equals the ability and a willingness to apply what has been learned. This is because the easier it is to access skills, information, and tools, the more likely a human being will use them. This rule is immutable. This observation applies to most of the human race, bar none. Other than those who have physical characteristics that prevent them from learning, this rule always applies. And those with physical limitations are a very, very, small portion of the entire populace.  Image courtesy liberalarts.udmercy.edu

I have taught both English and transformational seminars in prisons for years. If you talk to the outside populace about the prison population, the politically correct verbiage is “recidivism” while simultaneously if you ask them, they would not want an ex-con living in their neighborhood. Therefore, their belief in recidivism is either nil, or no. That would mean that most people do not believe that inmates can either be persuaded to live different lives other than crime or they believe that inmates cannot be re-educated with the skills necessary to do so. It is this belief that has to be overcome in society, in order for people to see that anti-recidivism training works, and in turn, to have faith in its outcome. As long as the majority of citizens do not believe in these truths, that people’s lives can be changed for the better, even when you do valuable work to that effect with inmates, they will be at a disadvantage. This disadvantage manifests as blocked opportunities, and unwillingness by those in power to provide a realistic offering of programs that would actually support an inmate in getting a job, a place to stay, and to live a life within an environment that supports the changes that have happened.

Read More