A Former Inmate Talks About How Prisons Manufacture Criminals

Prisoners often suffer dehumanizing abuse at the hands of guards and other inmates, and are ill-prepared to get jobs and homes once they're out—is it any wonder so many of them go back to crime?

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Sep 8 2015, 3:05pm

Photo via Flickr user Jumilla

Right now, there are over 2.2 million Americans in prison. We imprison a larger portion of our population than any other nation. Most of those inmates were convicted for nonviolent offenses, and most inmates will eventually get out. It's easy to say, "Hey they committed a crime, be as harsh as you can so they learn a lesson and we can send a message." But if we treat inmates poorly—by allowing them to be raped and beaten and told they are subhuman while being cut off from their families—and then we return those inmates to society, what, then, will happen to us?

If we care about ourselves, then we must care about what happens in prison. It may feel like it's far from society, but it's really not, and the things that happen in prison will eventually impact all of us. That violence, that pain, that deprivation, will seep out and hurt us. If we truly are a nation that believes in second acts and in the possibility of changing your life, then why don't we extend that beyond the world of religion and self-help and weight loss and let it also be part of how we think about our prisoners?

The overwhelming majority of inmates end up going back to prison—because of crimes committed against the rest of us. Last year, Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 67.8 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were re-arrested within three years. A large reason why so many inmates who get out end up going back is prison itself. The place is supposedly constructed to keep people from ever wanting to go there, and you would think that a trip to prison would be a huge motivator to keep from ever going back. But prison is criminogenic—prison helps cause crime. Prison builds better criminals, it cuts people off from law-abiding society, and it narrows people's chances to ever make it in the legitimate economy. Prison is supposed to help curb crime—they are called "correctional facilities," after all—but instead, prison is feeding our crime problem.

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Jeff Smith is a professor in urban policy at the New School's Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy in New York, and not someone you would ever guess had spent time inside. He's short and bookish and preppy and brilliant and has the gentlemanly manners we expect of Midwesterners, along with a politician's way of putting people at ease. He was a Missouri state senator from 2007 to 2009, representing the fourth district, which includes part of St. Louis. But in August 2009, he pled guilty to obstruction of justice stemming from federal election law violations committed during a failed 2004 campaign for Congress. He spent nine months incarcerated in federal prison, and his excellent memoir of his time away, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis, is out now. (Full disclosure: I blurbed the book because I loved it and because Jeff is a friend ,but I'm interviewing him now at no benefit to myself.)

There are few people who can speak more intelligently about prison from an academic and a lived perspective, so I called Jeff to talk about his time there. He is, somewhat surprisingly, extremely passionate about the subject, especially on the impact of prison rape.

VICE: Is prison criminogenic?
Jeff Smith: Yes. For a number of reasons. Some reasons are specific to what happens inside prison and other reasons are more about the kinds of things that happen after prison. For one, the fact of having been in prison makes it harder to find housing, because four out of five landlords see if you have a criminal background. Nine out of ten employers see if you have a criminal background. The majority of employers surveyed will not hire you if you have a criminal background. So there's all these kinds of things that make it harder to get back on your feet, and if you don't have money to meet your basic needs that makes you more likely to recidivate.

There's also all the things that happen inside prison that are criminogenic. One of them is that it's dehumanizing. When people are making it clear to you in every way that you're shit, then you're not going to be feeling very good about yourself. So there's a psychological dehumanization. There's also a total lack of opportunity in prison to rehabilitate. In fact, at my facility, when you left prison there was one CO [correctional officer] who said to everybody leaving, "You'll be back, shitbird." They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in not rehabilitating you. That's on top of a total lack of vocational training or an opportunity to develop skills that will help you succeed on the outside.

Then there's rape, which is a sad but omnipresent feature of prison life. There's a tolerance of rape in many prisons—even though we've passed federal legislation, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a lot of states don't even keep track of how many rapes are reported in their prisons, they're just ignoring the legislation. So there's that whole aspect which makes people much more likely to rape when they get out, because when you feel as if your manhood has been stripped away, a lot of people attempt to reclaim their manhood in a violent fashion when they get out.

And in prison, you learn how to deceive all the time. In order to eat in prison, in order to have basic hygiene, in order to have a bar of soap or toothpaste, you've got to have money. And most people don't have money, so they're hustling and that means they're figuring out ways to get drugs and sell them or pornography and sell it or whatever type of contraband there is or sometimes how to provide some service. So they're operating in an underground economy that in some ways encourages entrepreneurial ingenuity, but also reinforces this notion that you always have to get around the system and not do things in a lawful way.

There's also the way that in prison your bonds with law-abiding society are being broken down and your bond with other criminals is being strengthened.
Absolutely. And they make it extremely difficult for you to stay in touch with other people because it's so expensive. In prison, normal phone calls can be from $1 to $3 a minute. We know two things reduce recidivism: one, staying in touch with people, with law-abiding loved ones, and having a support network; and two, advancing educationally. And yet we make it harder to stay in touch with people by making it hugely expensive, by locating prisons far from where criminals live, by doing things like video visits which are prohibitively expensive for many families, instead of allowing actual visits, by making it so that you can only visit in very limited times. I'm not saying it should be a country club, but if people want to come see you, they should be able to come see you. Often times, Theresa, who's now my wife, would drive eight hours and then they would make her wait for two hours so she would only be able to see me for like an hour and then have to drive eight hours back. Having good positive interactions with people on the outside makes you less likely to recidivate, but they try to make that difficult. They once told Theresa to leave because she was wearing khaki, so she had to go shopping for new clothes and by the time she got back, she had driven eight hours to see me for 20 minutes.

"If you look at nations that have far lower recidivism rates, you'll see they do actual vocational training in prison."

Because she was wearing khaki?
In the fine print of some regulations, they said you can't do that.

Because the prisoners wore khaki?
No! Khaki was not our color! We wore dark greens! That was just a rule! Then we know the other thing that makes you less likely to recidivate is to advance educationally, yet the whole year I was in prison they offered one GED course and one hydroponics course for two weeks where they taught you how to grow tomatoes in water. If you look at nations that have far lower recidivism rates, you'll see they do actual vocational training in prison. When you come in they figure out what skills you have or can acquire and then they train you to be a plumber or how to do HVAC, how to do jobs that there's a need for. If we were smart and we actually cared as a country about the people who get locked up, then we would do that.

But we make it pretty clear that we don't care very much and one place we see that is in our tolerance of rape. There's tens of thousands of rapes in prisons every year [one group called Stop Prison Rape says more than 200,000 men are raped in prison each year] and it's essentially tolerated because that's the deterrent. If I asked 100 dudes on the street what do you fear most in the world, I bet 90 would say going to prison and getting raped. And society views it as an acceptable cost in order to deter people. And that's pretty messed up.

Part of the problem seems to be that we don't care about what happens to criminals and we don't see the behavior that's visited on them as having a chance of rebounding onto us.
The mentality is very slowly changing in this society, but for decades at the highest levels of policymaking you couldn't be too tough on criminals. You saw governors getting elected by advocating chain gangs. Before [Former Florida Governor] Charlie Crist was a Democrat, he cut his political teeth by running for attorney general as "Chain Gang Charlie." I think that from the highest levels of policymaking, it was impossible to be too tough on criminals. And that caused us to increase our prison population fivefold from 1985 to now. And we didn't really make society safer.

I mean, when you come out of prison, you may still owe court costs from before you went in, and you have to pay to live in your halfway house and you have to pay for your drug testing and you have to pay for clothes for job interviews and you're trying to get back on your feet and there's all these obstacles in your way! I had a fucking PhD, I had 300 letters to the judge from prominent people including the attorney general, the lieutenant governor, the mayor of St. Louis, the senate majority leader, and I had a hard time getting a job when I came out. Think of how hard it is for someone with no savings, no community support, no PhD, no college degree, nothing but a GED earned in prison, no savings to fall back on, no transportation, no place to live. It makes you wonder not why the recidivism rate is 66 percent but why is it only that low.

Did you see people who were not violent criminals morphing into violent criminals?
I saw myself doing criminal things in prison. I'm stealing at the warehouse. I'm getting in fights. I'm acting in ways that I didn't act on the street, and I was not even there a year. Imagine getting a long sentence and you have to learn to adjust to that environment, a world where you can't show any emotion, you can't show any vulnerability, and you gotta be tough and hard at all times. You think that's not gonna have an effect on somebody? I watched it have an effect on me in ten months. So yeah, I watched guys who seemed to be mild-mannered come in and get baited, get antagonized, get in fights. There's an element in there that that's what they do. They prey on people who seem to be weak. That's why you can't show any weakness. Even though there's tremendous entrepreneurial ingenuity, even though there was tremendous desire among people who wanted to fly straight and learn a trade, there's also people who are so beaten down that they're going to cause a problem for others, and there's criminogenic effects there as well.

How do we make prison less criminogenic?
First we adopt some Western European models of prison where prison is seen more like putting your kid on a break to think about what they did, but not to dehumanize your child by beating them or exposing them to violence or psychological torture like solitary confinement—which is a key tactic that prisons use to control people and to discipline them for small infractions, even though solitary confinement is a huge driver of PTSD. But it's a routine method used in prisons all around the country, and that's a real problem. We should treat prisons much more like Western Europe does which is like, "OK, why did you get here? What were your problems on the outside? And what can we do to address them from a therapeutic perspective, from a vocational training perspective, from an holistic human perspective to say how can we make sure you don't come back?" That's what the mentality is as opposed to, "You're here to be punished," which is the American prison mentality.

When we think of prison as a business, does it make sense for prison to be criminogenic? Shouldn't a business try to bring its customers back?
Politically it works out very nicely that a huge sector of people who would probably be progressive voters are incarcerated. Economically it works out to take a lot of people who would drive down wages out of the labor market. It works out from a lot of different perspectives to have a huge prison population. But would America tolerate it, would any business tolerate it, if 66 percent of their products failed? But 66 percent of prisoners are essentially failures by coming back and recidivating. And it's no accident. And we shouldn't tolerate it.

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