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What Does a More Restorative Prison System Look Like?

Changing our present correctional system begins with a shift in perspective at top levels of leadership. Whether there is a major overhaul of our Criminal Justice System or only a change in how those who are in charge of our prison/jail systems perceive men and women who enter their walls, the shift has to be organized and modeled by sheriffs and wardens who oversee and manage these institutions. Too often corrections guards and officers pass judgment on individuals who are required to serve time in county jails before they are sentenced, or decide that those who have been ordered to spend time in prisons as a result of sentencing, are bad, wrong, unworthy of respect, and incapable of change. It is important that corrections staff understand more about the backgrounds of those entering their facilities and believe that as with all individuals, the more they are treated with respect and kindness, the more they will respond with positive attitudes and behaviors. This is not to say that inmates should be excused for exhibiting negative behaviors nor should their attitudes be allowed to persist.

By initially treating inmates with respect; clearly stating expectations and consequences; encouraging and providing useful, constructive activities and programs; along with asking them to do simple, helpful tasks, those in charge can begin to effectively shape more positive attitudes and behaviors. I believe that positive reinforcement goes a long way toward motivating change. Basic privileges should be given to all upon entering the corrections facility which may be increased gradually in response to responsible and positive behavior. Allowing an increase in privileges and comfort, based on responsible and appropriate behavior may give the incarcerated a sense of empowerment and motivate them to earn what they desire by acting maturely and considerately.

It is essential that authority figures within the corrections system model respectful and assertive behavior. Those who are serving time often have low self-esteem and lack confidence, after being subjected to abuse and neglect as children. Treating them with respect and kindness, will gradually create more positive senses of self and motivate them to treat others in return as they have been treated.

"Idle minds are the devil's workshop" certainly applies to those who spend too much time in jail/prison with nothing to do and the TV constantly running on channels often spewing out overly stimulating, meaningless chatter. By allowing limited TV time, playing soothing music, and providing helpful reading material, constructive activities and classes, jails/prisons can create a more positive environment in which the inmates can slow down their energy, think more clearly and use their time more constructively. Often while teaching in the jail, I became aware of the negative impact of too much idle time on male inmates, including heated arguments leading to fights over TV channel choices.

There are many useful, simple jobs that inmates can be asked to do, occupying their time and minds with constructive activities, giving them a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and ultimately, exposing them to meaningful information and teaching new skills. I have heard the argument that asking the incarcerated to work while they are in prison is to take advantage of them, especially if they are not paid. Is allowing them to fester, be bored with nothing to do within the confines of their pods and cells for endless hours, any more humane? Providing constructive reading materials along with useful classes addressing attitudes, decision making processes, anger-management, relationship building along with job skill instruction, aids the inmates with their process of changing from negative to positive beliefs and actions.

This is an overview of what a more restorative correctional system would look like. It may seem "soft" to those who believe inmates do not deserve to be treated well and with respect. Judging, demeaning, being unkind toward those who are forced to deal with confinement for long periods of time, often coming from tough backgrounds and facing difficult circumstances, only perpetuates their negative thoughts and behaviors, resulting in the likelihood of re-offending. If there is any hope of releasing those who have served time in jails/prisons better equipped to survive and live successfully on the outside, we have no choice but to deal with them in a more restorative way. Or are we only interested in growing our corrections systems, disinterested in the plight of our fellow human beings who have faltered, feeling they are only worthy of failure and punishment for the rest of their lives? Our society is only as strong as its weakest link!

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