Academia inside Prison Walls

As criminal justice students, we often have few opportunities to read work by prisoners or ever hear what prisoners have to say about prison. What we are exposed to, however, are scholarly articles, written by academics, maybe with a little input from prisoners themselves but information gathered mostly from statistics and other quantitative research. I guess I speak for my fellow Criminal Justice students when I say that it is refreshing to hear what inmates themselves have to say, and not graduate students who have never experienced prison themselves, either through reading Stateville Speaks articles or perusing the work of Joe Dole, a current inmate who has conducted very in-depth research on the topic of recidivism.

When Joe’s research was handed to me last week in class, I (ashamedly) did not expect a high quality of work from an inmate. I was astounded. Joe’s work is very well written, cited properly, and uses reliable sources. Like a scholarly work, Joe utilized statistical information and existing qualitative research to support his argument. I am ashamed that I held certain presumptions before really looking at his work. I was under the assumption that I should not expect too much quality from his work as, from learning in my CJ courses, many inmates come from low-income areas, and often did not have access to good education. Not only does Dole make an argument to increase lifers’ access to parole, but he provides solutions to the problems of recidivism, and uses the information he compiled to create profiles of recidivists.

Though the research is quality work, I doubt that his paper will make its way into the classrooms and be regarded as “scholarly work.” I even wonder if correctional experts or sentencing panels would consult the research of a prisoner in their decision making. Nevertheless, I find it unfortunate that the work of Joe Dole and others like him goes unheard, despite the value in their first-hand experience of life behind bars.

The Elderly in Prison and Recidivism

This week’s readings concern a topic that I have never really discussed in any previous Criminal Justice course before: the aging prison population. As a result of the movement to get tough on crime, prisons are now faced with a growing elderly prison population. The article “Aging Prisoners” makes mention of two specific causes borne out of the tough on crime movement that have lead to this phenomena. Truth-in-sentencing, the first of these two causes, put an end to indeterminate sentencing, and required convicts to spend a minimum amount of years in prison closer to the sentence they received. In any case, the time offenders spent in prison was lengthened dramatically. Another reason for the increase of the elderly in prison was the overall increase in length of prison sentences. The article specifically mentions three strikes laws, which can put offenders away for life upon being convicted a third time in some states. Long-term imprisonment has become the preferred method to combat crime, and as a result, states are becoming increasingly burdened with caring for an aging prison population.

Prisons are not nursing homes, and are ill-equipped for dealing with a population that requires such care. There is little room in corrections’ budgets to care for the sick and young, much less the elderly, who are susceptible to an array of physical and mental ailments as they age. When resources are scarce, and prisoners approach ages where their strength and mobility deteriorate, are they still at risk for recidivism? Does punishment matter at this point?

My questions were answered in the prison letters I read addressed to Bill Ryan concerning House Bill 4154. HB 4154, from what I gather, allows for inmates, aged 50 or over, having served twenty-five years or more to petition the court for release. Reading the letters, the bill is pretty generally well received among inmates. However, some inmates expressed concern at the minimum age of eligibility. Offenders, he wrote, at any age who have served that long of a sentence are unlikely to recidivate. One prisoner, Dinah Hufsteder, pointed to petty criminals as the sources of constant recidivism, not the recipients of lengthy prison sentences. These are the people, Hufsteder suggests, that should be eligible for early release, as they are unlikely to commit another offense. In any case, Illinois needs to move faster, as prison budgets are slimming. Keeping the elderly in prison is a costly task.