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Shouldn’t People Come Out of Prison Better, Not Worse?

The following was written by Elizabeth Melson, a longtime FAMM member. A former addict and returned citizen, she now works toward federal sentencing awareness and reform and is a proponent of election and ballot access reform initiatives. She is also the founder of Farm-to-Table Solutions.

As a first-time offender who received a 63-month sentence, I served my time and was released in 2009 from FPC Alderson, a low-security women’s institution. Through the entire correctional process, from awaiting sentencing in a regional jail to post-release, there are troublesome issues in pro-social programming and mental health support. I have thought long and hard about how the experience affected me, and I want to make the system better so that others don’t go through what I did — or at least so that rehabilitation and reentry are given more than just lip service.

Prison programming is mostly inadequate or there are not enough resources to go around to inmates in over-capacity facilities. Many programs are infrequent and taught by inmates or volunteers, where no real-world certifications are received. I once took a class called Creative Writing, taught by an inmate. We wrote a short story and illustrated it. In hindsight, it was like an elementary school assignment. I believe the class was held once a week for four weeks, and we received a “diploma” on the last day.

There are exceptions. I was able to participate in a pilot Culinary Arts program, which had the potential to be practical in its design as well as inspirational. The program was a joint venture with a nearby community college, and I recall that it only offered two sessions before it was discontinued. The chef was a highly experienced and resourceful professional, but materials and ingredients were limited or restricted.

Counseling and psychology services are almost non-existent in prison. The norm seems to be that if you are not having thoughts of suicide or wanting to hurt others, you are fine. A coping skills class may be offered once, as an hour-long overview. The exception is RDAP (Residential Drug Abuse Program.) This is an intensive, nine-month program based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. RDAP, like most programs of value in the federal prison system, comes at the end of a person’s sentence after a long waiting list. For most of the length of their sentences, inmates are left to grapple with imprisonment, separation from family, criminal thinking, inner turmoil, and trauma — without ever being given the skill sets to do so.

Some inmates are eligible for incentives upon completion of the RDAP program: up to a year early-release and six months in a halfway house to allow for a transitioned reentry. However, due to the long waiting lists and being bumped back by new inmates coming in with shorter sentences, inmates who complete RDAP often do not receive the maximum incentive early-release or are sent to a work-release jail, rather than a halfway house. Essentially, these people are taking a step backward in security level when they should be transitioning to greater contact with the public and society.

Low-security prisons do require most inmates to keep prison jobs, most of which contribute to the functioning of the facility. Most inmates start out with custodial jobs, then are either moved to where work is needed or request other assignments. These help pass the time and inmates can earn pennies on the dollar to use upon release or to buy incidentals and snacks from the prison store. In my job as a food service clerk, doing simple administrative work, I earned 86 cents an hour. Inmate department clerks were one of the highest paid jobs. A few corporations contract with prisons to provide employment to qualified inmates, such as manufacturing or call centers.

The most accessible and, I suspect, adequately funded programming was recreational programming. I signed up for as many of these classes as I could: leather-working, yoga, cross-stitch, guitar, and ceramics. I spent many hours practicing billiards. These activities promote fitness and hobbies, but do little to prepare for the real-world challenges of re-entry.

Many federal inmates are first-time, low-level offenders with excessively long sentences, like me. Federal correctional resources could be better allocated toward reforming sentencing structures for first-time offenders, allowing for more community-based corrections, and in funding mental health and substance abuse programs, and toward education programs that encourage career tracks in corrections for physicians, counselors, and mental health providers. In my experience, the system badly needs qualified professionals.

I still experience this part firsthand. It’s been 11 years since my conviction and I am still dealing with the trauma of that period of my life. Last night, for example, I woke up sweating and crying from a dream where I was lost in a huge institution, completely disoriented. When I finally discovered a phone, it was dangling on the line and out of order. My 4-year-old daughter had crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night, and after I calmed down, I reached out to hug her tight. My heart breaks for mothers, fathers, and children separated by incarceration.

There have got to be solutions to make time in prison a time for rehabilitation and improvement — not more harm done. I speak as someone who’s been through it and speaks for change.

Elizabeth Melson recently shared her views with the office of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to help guide in the drafting of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, recently introduced in Congress. Many of these ideas for reform reflect the recommendations FAMM made in our prison reform report, “Using Time to Reduce Crime,” released in June.

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