America has a reputation for dehumanizing rather than rehabilitating its prisoners. Jails are crowded beyond manageable levels. Privatization and for-profit measures have pushed more people into incarceration than ever before; for example, those with minor fines and misdemeanors. The prison population has a sixth-grade education level on average, and without access to prison education programs, released inmates often reoffend when their lack of education prevents them from accessing living-wage jobs.
President Obama had put aggressive prison reform measures in place to help change the system, including helping to launch the Smart on Crime program with former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The Smart on Crime program called for an end to harsh mandatory minimum sentences for minor crimes. In his second year in office, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law that reduced drug sentencing that unfairly targeted African-Americans.
Now that President Trump is in charge, where do things stand? Are Obama’s plans still in play? Are matters standing still or is reform taking place?
Sadly, under the Trump administration, things don’t look very good. Where Obama sought to reduce unnecessary incarceration for minor crimes, Trump signed three executive orders that Rolling Stone magazine called “consistent with his firm but demonstrably false view that crime is out of control.”
Amy Lopez had been hired into the Justice Department as a superintendent by the Obama administration, tasked with overhauling the federal prison education system in the hopes of easing re-entry into and reducing recidivism. In May, Lopez was fired by the Trump administration. After being booted, Lopez declined to talk to the press, saying she wished to confer with a lawyer first, but Huffington Post reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Julia Craven had no trouble finding people willing to talk about Lopez’s dismissal. One person that worked on the reform mandate told Huffington Post that the program Obama put in place was “shitcanned.” Another said, had been covertly “canned or placed on hold.” Another noted the firing “signals a tragic departure from what had been a growing acknowledgment of the importance of education for those locked up in our nation’s prisons.”
While research proves that prison education reduces recidivism by 13 percent, and that each dollar spent on prison education yields savings of up to five dollars in prison costs per prisoner, Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice Jeff Sessions has stated that prison education programs do not “seem to have much benefit.”
One major aspect of American prisons that is often called into question is the dehumanization of inmates. As proven by the Stanford Prison Experiment, denying prisoners basic human considerations and a measure of autonomy over their lives while guards exploit positions of power radically and negatively alters the psychology of inmates.
In some prisons, inmates are being charged as much as $14 per minute for phone calls to family and friends, even though building positive relationships outside of prison while incarcerated is part of their reform program. Some prisoners leave jail with staggering debt thanks to being charged fees for each day they were in prison. These punitive measures do nothing to help inmates enter society, and greatly increase their chances of reoffending.
The Obama administration worked to remove barriers to former inmates seeking employment, vowed to phase out private prison contracts, and had the first sitting president in history to actually visit a federal prison.
Is the Trump administration planning on keeping up with Obama’s plans to improve the lives of prisoners through thoughtful rehabilitation? It’s unlikely, considering that private prison stocks surged within hours of Trump’s election to office.
“Private prisons would likely be a clear winner under Trump, as his administration will likely rescind the contract phase-out,” analysts at Height Securities LLC said in a media release.
The analysts were correct. Private prison company Corrections Corp. enjoyed a 60 percent stock surge and GEO Group Inc. jumped up 18 percent following the election, recouping some of the money they lost when the previous administration said it would phase out private prisons.
Trump is not a popular president. Even many of his initial supporters are backing away, scratching their heads at his increasingly bizarre antics. The sad thing is, as this man continues to wield his power seemingly on ever-shifting egomaniacal whims, real people are being crushed by his appetite for profit. And when it comes to prison education and rehabilitation under his administration, the future looks very grim indeed.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.