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Week of 4.2.10

Maximum Capacity

Saving tax dollars—can an innovative program make big cuts in America's prison population?

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The number of inmates in American prisons is outpacing the system's ability to hold them all. In one startling example, California prisons hold well over 50,000 more inmates than they're designed for, even though the state has built a dozen new prisons in the last 15 years. One of the biggest reasons is rampant recidivism.

This week, NOW goes inside an Illinois prison that may have the answer to California's problems. With its innovative plan to keep released inmates from coming back, the Sheridan Correctional Center is trying to redefine "tough on crime" by being the largest fully dedicated drug prison in the country. The approach involves aggressive counseling, job training, and following the convicts after they get out.

Can their novel approach keep convicts out of jail for good?

Web Exclusive

Prison Poetry
A former heroin addict, drug dealer, and Chicago gang member reads some of the poetry he wrote while serving time.
Related Links

Pew Research: Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Key Facts

Viewer Comments

Commenter: Julia Doherty
This was a provoking and thoughtful look at Sheriden Correctional Facility, a really promising new model. The fact that they receive support throughout their parole and the education they receive while in prison really equips these inmates with living skills and support. Shrong Clemen's poetry was absolutely wonderful... I haven't been so affected by poetry in a while. I'm absolutely hurt and saddened to see that Shrong died years after. What horrible circumstances to get a tumor when you are trying to recreate your life. He is an enduring character in my mind... definitely left an impression on me.

Commenter: Lawrence Quilici
I am a retired State and Federal Prison Chaplain as well as worked in addiction treatment centers and applaud Sheridan's concept.

I have scientific friend who says he can change one gene in the poppy and marijuana seeds that will make them inert and then spread them in those countries to propogate but no one will allow it because both sides are making too much money. He can also alter the gene in corn, soybean, and cotton to enhance their yiely and potency for those same countries to export.

Commenter: William Zaffer
A common sense approach that treats humans in a proper way to deal with their disease of drugs. We needs to have prevention programs and better opportunities for jobs in the first place so they do not escape into drugs in the first place. The difference between them and rich kids or those in college is they have to money from their parents to support their drugs without the parents knowing. Tough on crime should be relaxed on drugs unless they commit violent crimes. We need programs in the cities to help this racial caste system that has been institutionalized into society.

Commenter: Scott H Silverman
THis is just Great. Sheridan has nailed it. My Name is Scott H. Silverman we run a program. Second Chance in San Diego, Ca How can we support your work and replicate it here in California?

let us know.. thank you.

Commenter: Leah
For starters, let's stop incarcerating drug users and commercial sex workers. These are crimes without victims.

We cannot afford - in any sense - to continue our mindless "war" on drugs. It costs billions and accomplishes nothing of value. Drug treatment is far less costly to the taxpayers, more effective for the drug user, and better for their families.

Legalize marijuana. It is silly to equate it with cocaine, heroin, or alcohol - all of which are truly worse. Legalize it and tax it. Let the people who are in jails or prisons for using it free. Save money that way and make money by taxing it.

As for commercial sex workers, legalize it and follow a public health policy with monthly health check-ups. Let's make it safer for the women involved and help them to get away from the pips who exploit them.

Let's fund mental health care for the mentally ill. What a concept! Let's provide them with housing and services so they are not on the streets and in our prisons, which is far more costly!

These steps would end the overcrowding and free up funds to rehabilitate those who are able to benefit. In the end, we would have a small pool of truly dangerous people who need to remain in prison for the safety and well-being of society.

Commenter: jerry rubin
I really loved your presentation on the Mayor of a "RUST BELT" city turn it into growing food (food markets), making simple things, fixing up the neighborhood, etc.

Please run that over and over and over again. I think it is a great idea for us to be able to connect back with the land and feed ourselves locally. I also love the idea of teaching people about how they value their own city, town, village.

A better America and less dirty factories unused.

Commenter: John P. Heffernan
In the entire area of crime and punishment 85% of the time the point is totally missed, as everyone chases the effects and does not address the causes. That said if one looks at the causes of crime one sees the family life, education, job opportunities, method of solving problems and peer groups be they gangs or church goers impacts one's good or bad choices.

Let us look at the elements: family life 50% divorce and education 40% drop out, job opportunities read the newspapers if one exists, solving problems for the those gaining inmate status 80% drink or drugs. I have no idea about peer groups except the failure rate exists next door, as fewer neighbors have a belief system beyond reality TV.

The reality is that 82% of the crimes reported go unsolved, those are public safety reports going back to the 1930's. Another reality is on one side of town the police are helping and the otherside they are arresting, which suggests we see more blacks arrested than whites. Police do have crime zones in figuring out how to assign their staff. The police focus does impact arrest numbers.

Another cause is because in a political arena there is no risks in pushing a punishment model vs a type of solution approach based on cause. No victim is expected to forgive and forget but if they do not they suffer twice.

My reason for writing this note is to encourage folks to step up and say prisons are not a solution if that requires criminals must become victims in the fear factories we call prisons. I worked in probation and parole 8 years, work release 8 years, and prisons 14 years. My greatest duty 16 years was to protect the public and 14 years to protect the inmates.

I have now writen a book Not One Drop Of Blood that shares why probation works, why work release can be a diversion tool and why all other efforts must take second place too inmate safety via self-screening. I finally say that the economy drives the reported crime numbers; just look at the numbers since 1930.

Commenter: Barry855inCA
Doesn't work??? Got a 5 year sentence when I was 20 years old and strung out. Was released at almost 23 years old in May 1989 after serving half and went right to a long term substance abuse treatment program the day I got out (because my parole officer threatened me to go or would have taken me back). The last time I used drugs was in prison the day before I was released. Been out and sober the whole time and that was 21 years ago this May. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Commenter: Anthony Sottile
This presentation of Now fell short in both presenting the problem in our prisons and promoting the solutions of Sheridan. Now should have addressed our concept and conduction of punishment for the types of crime and measured it against our expectations.One cannot cage a person over a period of time, restrict its freedoms, and withold the opportunity for rehabilitation through traing and counseling and expect different results. As mentioned previously,our prisons are overcrowded by archaic drug laws. We have the largest prison population in the free world, as a percentage, and are doing nothing to reduce it. Now should have shown the number of people in prisons due to drug related crimes and then broken that down into categories of possession and distribution as an example.
That number multiplied by the amount of money it cost to keep someone incarcerated, estimated to be as much as $45,000 a year,is only a portion of the total costs of incarceration. Now, alongside of stating that the Sheridan program cost 11 million dollars more than "conventional prisons" should have shown what the reduction in recitivism rate would reduce that cost of 11 million dollars. Now needs to take a harder hitting investigative journalism approach to its subjects.

Commenter: Jennifer Sunseri
It's long past time for us to think outside of the box when it comes to our nation's problems. Not to mention global problems, as well. Programs such as the one investigated in this episode truly are exactly what we need.

Commenter: Bob Bennett
Programs like Sheridan are needed, but it misses a needed prior step. One of the reasons the prison population has grown so much over the past 30 years has been the implementation of the plea bargain system. This is a system which breeds contempt for the law. The plea bargain system was devised as a method to evade the Supreme Court's Miranda decision in 1966, but not generally used until the 1980's, when it was begun to be used to replace all trials, including misdemeanors. Essentially a person who has no funds is required to stay in jail until he or she pleads no contest. For those who have committed some crime(the vast majority), it is essentially an incentive to commit more crimes. For those who believe themselves wrongly accused (and here I include myself- some twenty years ago) they find themselves in a system where they are routinely disrespected, by both attorneys and jail personnel. "Plead no contest, and I can get you out of here (jail) by tomorrow" is about the only thing a public defender will ever say to you. The system breeds crime and disrespect for the law; lies, denials and cover-ups are what the criminal justice system is known for. Until that changes I expect no real relief from the high crime rate and incarceration.

Commenter: Former Inmate
I've read several of the comments posted and listened to several debates about the best way to save taxpayers money and/or how to get the most bang for your buck. Another idea presented that is equally valid is the best way to restore a safe community. All these ARE important issues that deserve consideration, I agree. But I would like to mention that providing another human being the opportunity to truly give and receive, live a gratifying life, and teaching them how to love them self and others, is also considerable. I haven't heard these as motivating factors. To be frank with you, it only reinforces the belief that we live in a world where people always will, and have to, fend for themselves. What do you think it is that these "criminals" are doing and why? It's not rocket science, you don't need your masters in psychology to understand... Maybe you do need experience and that is one thing I have.
One post on this page commented that it is not as a result of, but in spite of the system that some ex-cons "rehabilitate". I have to agree, that is in fact my own personal experience. Walking out into the free world was horribly overwhelming and ridden with angst. Thank God my father was able to get me a job working for a friend of his that owned a company. Thank God a nice Christian couple allowed me to live in their home with them upon release. Thank God for so many endless things that helped to create an environment that facilitated personal growth and change. Thank God... not the judicial system, not the state of Arizona, not the community. Despite the help and support that I had, and I guarantee most individuals released from prison don't, I still felt defeated at times. I can remember moments that even though I was determined, I felt so hopeless that going back to prison seemed like the best possible solution. I remember considering what I could do to get back there that wouldn't hurt anyone and wouldn't require me to go back to using the very drug that first got me there. One thing I know is that this entire system is broken in so many ways and the criminal justice system is just another fine example, It breeds more dysfunction!

Commenter: Katie O'Neill
I look forward to watching Nova, unfortunately it is one of a very few quality TV programs we have. The Sheridan Correctional Center is making a welcome step in the right direction. I was moved by the prisoners' stories and the dedication of the counselors and correctional personnel. The prison system is dysfunctional and needs radical change. But we need someone with supernatural powers to lead this country in the direction it needs to go in order to reform the prison system. Prisoners who are violent, dangerous and beyond redemption need to be removed from society and never be released. The rest of the prison population should be rehabilitated to the extent that they are capable while they are serving their sentence so that they can contribute to society when they are released.

Commenter: eJewett
What's lacking in our prison systems is HOPE. the loudest in our society have screamed for tougher sentences and to lock the doors and throw away the keys. Prisoners must feel that there is no hope for them to better themselves and our society tells them that. We treat offenders as if all of them are the worst of the worst, but in that frame of mind, where can compassion enter to tell the prisoners that there is hope for a better life? All the positive programs mentioned are obviously benificial and should be replicated and expanded to reach the most inmates possible. But our public discussion needs to change from a zero tolerance, punishment, and retribution system (which often can look like revenge) to a discussion on the impacts to all communities when our justice system does nearly nothing to reintegrate these millions of citizens who have been pushed to the fringes of society. It is pounded in their heads that they are worthless criminals unfit to interact in society (they are criminals, they have commited a crime or else they wouldn't be there...unless they're innocent) when a negative view of a person is constantly beraded to them, they will act in that way. If a criminal is told they're a worthless criminal, they'll likely stay a criminal. If a criminal is told they can lead a normal, law-abiding, free life, outside of prison bars.. they will think about their position with more optimision if they feel there is something to give them HOPE. We as a public have a duty to care for/about the least among us and strive to make rehabilitation the goal, rather than simply punishment or revenge.

Commenter: Beverly Hynes
NO, they do not rehabilitate. They ship prisoners to different prisons to get money for programs that are not enacted. The prison system is a disgrace, where prisoners can find more drugs and alcohol (thanks in large part to the guards, who are not searched upon entry to the facility) inside than outside. They don't help them. Just leave them to their own devices. Many of them are mentally ill (about 25% according to DOC stats). We need to help people with more services etc before they are incarcerated. Yes, it is expensive, but far less than imprisoning them. Programs like Pathways to Housing in New York, that provides an apartment for former inmates with mental illnesses, have a 90% success rate. Why? they aren't interested in treating them until they can find a safe place for these people to live.

Commenter: Ms Mickey Gittelson
A well thought out plan by well trained people can help some...not all of our criminals. They need acceptance and understanding. They need to see right from wrong and what inside of them put them in trouble. A well trained former criminal could be a great source of help when the proper program is developed. Hope there will be more successful attemtps. Good luck to all.

Commenter: nico
No I do not. it makes them worse criminals, especially if they go in young, they are unsafe in there also and turn into worse criminals when released.

Commenter: Matthew
With the exceptioon of the Sheridan program I've not seen any info on any syate taking rehab as seriously. States must realize that if some thought is not spent on rehab the threat to our society will only get worse.

Commenter: Polly Cleveland
I'm a great fan of NOW. However, I am appalled that the program did not report that prison overcrowding arises from US policies, particularly drug policies, that are vastly more punitive than those of other western nations, including Canada. In New York we give people 15 to life for possession or sale of miniscule amounts of heroin or cocaine. Then we expect them to stay perfectly clean on release. That's like expecting drinkers never to touch another drop, smokers never to light up again, and overeaters never to touch another French fry. Is it any wonder most of them wind up back in prison?

Commenter: Karras Bommer
I've been told that prisons have become big business; that an entire subculture of nearly free labor exists. If this is true, rehabilitation would simply reduce that work force. How could that be to the corporate advantage? The system needs more investigation.

Commenter: donbren
Do you believe U.S. prisons can effectively rehabilitate inmates? NO ... just as no 12-step program can make a drunk stop drinking. ONLY the person desiring the change can effect it. PERIOD.

Commenter: PF

Commenter: Sue Azia
I look forward all week to Now. I especially felt inspired by this week's show. We do need to find a better way to help returning prisoners, and I hope more states follow this example.

Commenter: Laura
Being an parole agent and a clinical counseling student. I have seen a few cases where the subjects were scared to return to prison. I do believe programs that deal with the roots causes of their behaviors will make a difference. Many times I have challenged my clients to look at themselves, and when they do they finally see the connection of their past pains into the present. Studies show that a support system upon release is vital while attending outpatient substance treatment. Futhermore, according to studies subjects who have a dual diagnosis need about a two year substance abuse treatment.

Commenter: J. Carter
Prison reform will only work, if there are jobs, with a reasonable wage attached to it... Right now, a College Graduate have a problem finding jobs... Check to see how the Student Loans are being paid.. Now we Globalize..!! Maybe if you go to China, we'll get work in the US..!! There's always WAL MART...!!

Commenter: williholden
Rehabilitation in prison depends on an enlighteded warden, caring guards, educational & vocational programs for future jobs...all of this a pipedream? It has worked in the past & can in the future, but money has to be spent well on these programs.

Commenter: Penny Adrian
Prisons as we now know them are not capable of assisting in the rehabilitative process. Some people who are incarcerated have made great strides in their own rehabilitation, but that is IN SPITE OF, not because of, the prison system. Some people do need to be seperated from society, but todays prison is not a place for any human being.

Commenter: Sy Glasser
I doubt if a program would work on a national basis. The program would have to be instituted and the Staff well trained. Would there be sufficient money to hire additional Staff ? Is it possible for the present Staff to do the job ? Few would I believe. Rehabilitation has long been attempted n the U.S. and has failed. Perhaps a study of the reasons for the failures would aid.

Commenter: John Thomson
As a fomer prisoner (17 1/2 yrs.) in over a dozen penitentiaries, the answer is no. They are not in the business to rehabilitate prisoners and they will be the first to tell you so. Prisons are currently an economic boom to small town farming communities. Try and close one of them and wait for the outcry against it. Prisons also thrive on slave labor for the government. Oh, and by the way, a prison school teacher told me God could change my life. I've been out of prison for 30 years, married 27 (to the school teacher ofcourse) raised 3 kids, and now retired.

Commenter: vueartist
The problems we have with the corrections is that those that oversee the system are in the punishment business. You think that Abu Grabade was bad, those were people who worked iour prison system and was an example of what goes on in the American prison system on a regular basis. It's another example of how, despite a decent education offered by our public schools, these people grow into adulthood with no ethical or moral role model includng President Bush. Lord - please help us.

Commenter: Bob Hinkle
The more prisons become private enterprise, just another business looking to grow, the less able they are to rehabilitate the inmate population. In addition, insofar as prisons are models for racism, they tend to negate successful reentry.

Commenter: Victoria
In the state of NY, college courses and the possibility of getting a degree was removed from the prison system by former governor Pitaki, leaving, 3 to 6 month certificate programs for inmates in fields such as horticulture---minimum wage jobs----computer skills----the boon was over years ago and jobs in the field are scarce----building maintenance---try finding work in this field especially with the union or in a school with a felony ---and other low wage job fields. Ever heard of getting a job with book training---and minimum hands on--- as an electrician? Ever try learning computers without a computer? The recitivism rate for prison inmates who recieved college degrees before it was taken away was near 80% never returning to prison. Check out Bard College........this is just one study done. The inmates do the time and are released and given a bus or subway token to go----where----with no money? They earn at most 26cents an hour in prison sweeping the floors or other maintenance jobs in the prison----then buy soap to bathe with, and shaving cream---there goes your two weeks pay. What happened to minimum wage? Many have no familiy or friends left to help and no education with felony records. If half the inmates had had educations they would not be in prison system in the first place. Yes they can be rehabilitated if given the chance. But the system will not allow that because people whine that their children cannot afford to go to college so why should prison inmates have that opportunity---why?---weigh the cost/benefit of a job training/college programs to incarceration----college cost to tax payers, $30,000---incarceration in prison for life---$50,000 a year at least. And the cost is going up with overtime given to corrections officers already making way above average income and more than 100 prisons in NY and building more. There is an even greater benefit----less victims of crime. Many inmates in NY are coerced to go to drug classes even though they were never involved with drugs. Why? The federal government pays for each inmate in upwards of $10,000 for this one class---the more who take it---the more the state recieves. Just a slight misuse of taxpayers money. Maybe this money could be put towards teaching an inmate how to read and a buy a few books?----hmmmm? The system needs just a slight bit of overhauling and I think we would see the recitivism rate drop drastically. Rehabilitate---yes!

Commenter: Don Timmerman
It is obvious that if prisoners are not rehabilitated they will repeat their crimes. Rehabilitation requires much time, compassion and love shown to the prisoners. Instead, our prisons continue to use violence, disrespect and cruelty against the prisoners. This is symptomatic of the philosophy of our society which is that violence pays. If you make someone suffer a lot that person will change to become a better person. Of course, the opposite is true. If you want to see positive change in someone you must show love in word and action to that person. Christ taught this. all psychologists and social workers have learned this in their training, but it is simply not put into effect. Therefore, the vicious circle continues, and recidivism continues.

Commenter: Jim Colbert
Prisons COULD work, just like public schools could work (and a cynic could think of the prisons as the post (non) graduate program of the public schools for failed students since many prisoners can not read). If we want to break the cycle of multigenerational poverty, broken families, and repeat offenders then we need to somehow break the current political stalemate. Republicans, with their corporate low cost/high profit mentality, just want to privatize everything , sort of Walmart meets Enron. If it sounds good to you, well God forbid you accidentally fall into the justice system! Democrats are hung up on the rights of the perpetrators (what about the crime victims?) and sometimes our election cycle causes the same short sightedness as quarterly corporate earnings: we spend tons of money on politically acceptable new prisons that continue to fail but no money on long term but politically risky programs like the Sheridan Correctional Center which could keep people from returning to jail. Rehab costs money and it isn't cheap, but our current broken justice / penal system is pretty expensive too, and it is not working. The fact that we have so many people incarcerated should be a national scandal but it is just one more indictment of our infotainment news media.

Commenter: Judith Nappe
Rehab can and does happen but the US prison system does not seem very effective. It seems they like Halliburton to build them, then stuff them full and bleed the municipalities, counties and states of money for their prisoners. Rehab needs continuous counseling, medications, group therapy and dietary assistance - forever for some folks. Does that happen in US prisons? It seems not, especially if there is the rate of return prisoners mentioned above.

Commenter: Sylvia
No. All one needs to do is to look at thr rate of recidivism to see that our prisons do a lousy job. In fact, they do no rehabilitation whatsoever.

Commenter: Tom Litsch
Hate and punishment do not cure bad behavior. Only LOVE can help change one for the better. Why do so many so called Christians concentrate on hate instead of love. They should know hate and cruel vengence will only breed more hate and bad behavior!

Commenter: Andy Galligan
A large percentage of inmates are addicts. I believe there is no hope for rehabilitation until an addict has an effective desire to change and a good 12-step program to support such a desire. I don't believe punitive incarceration will ever effect such a desire which has to come from within the person. Regarding the rest of the prison population, those who are not addicts, I do not think that our penal system is primarily or sufficiently set up to rehabiliate a person, but mainly to imprison the inmate and keep him/her off the streets for a given time. We hope when the prisoner is released, the ordinary citizens will be safer, but too often the parolee will come out more brutalized and angrier than ever. The whole depressing situation calls to my mind Karl Menninger's book The Crime of Punishment. It will take far more dedicated and wiser minds than mine to crack this nut.

Commenter: Barry De Jasu
I believe that the current state of our prisons is not compatable with rehabilitation. Our privitized prison system is all about profit. the more inmates the better, thein lies one of the problems. There is just not the interest in humanitarian styled prison philosophy.

Commenter: James Hall
Yes America's prisons are really overcrowded. One factor driveing this overcrowding is the large number of illegal aliens in America's jails. The black population does contribute it's own share.

Commenter: Jenny Hurley
A person gets out of prison. Who is going to hire him? We need the prison system to design and implement companies and manufacturing businesses where the ex-prisoner can have money coming and get to work for a couple of years so that he has a job record on his resume. At the same time, they need to have housing units near these businesses/factories. A lot of pepole cannot figure this out for themselves. They need nelp. Thanks

Commenter: jmanning
Our prisons have become places of violence, where minor criminals learn the skills of the masters, and the vulnerable are used and abused. Punishment is sometimes extreme with long-term isolation and excessive use of tasers and cruel forms of restraint. Women prisoners are humiliated - and worse - by male guards. Juveniles are put into adult prisons and often raped. People released from these pits of horror are often in very bad shape. There is very little outside to help them to reintegrate back into society, and there are a good many bad laws that make it even harder. While there are exceptions, most prisons do more damage than good. Rehabilitation for most will have to occur outside prison.

Commenter: Richard Thompson
Many inmates can be rehabilitated, but our prisons almost exclusively favor retribution and punishment. This excludes rehabilitation.

Commenter: J.
No - all evidence reflects the contrary!

Commenter: Robi
Only if the focus of the institution is rehabilitation and not solely punishment and punative actions. When there was a belief in rehabilitation, prisons had classes to get HS diplomas and college credit, job training, and more humane lodgings. Presently, our nation seems to be interested in only punishment, not in preparing the inmates for their discharge back into society as full members, participating members of their communities. Is the lack of rehab, education and training why felons in many states aren't allowed to vote, can't get jobs in the outside and may have problems finding housing?

Maximum Capacity

Prison Poetry: Works by Shrong Clemons

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