An appropriate number of prison staff is essential to the safety and security of every facility and the communities in which they are built. To ensure this happens, increasing the pay and training to current national standards should be a priority for lawmakers. However, the way officers are paid to do a better job with higher wages is how prisoners should be incentivized with higher education, job training and other rehabilitative programs designed to improve their behavior.
1994 marked a turning point in North Carolina’s prisons. Tough on crime rhetoric created a sentencing commission that abolished parole, good time, gain time, parole-eligible life sentences and initiated a point system for felonies committed after October of that year. Sentences beyond this point became static and no amount of judicial discretion, hard work or good behavior by the prisoner could reduce the time handed down by the court. As a result, the prison population increased and the primary incentive for positive behavioral change was eliminated.
To make matters worse, in 1996 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended Pell grants for prisoners. Without federal funding, access to post-secondary degree bearing programs ceased overnight. The rehabilitative mindset of the DOC shifted. No longer would it promote correctional programs intended to improve behavior. Incarceration served to incapacitate and punish convicted criminals.
As the prison population rose, so too did recidivism, gang activity, violence and corruption. Prison labor earns no more than a dollar a day and with no gain time awarded for work it became yet another form of punishment. Without positive reinforcement for good behavior the NC prison system fostered an environment of hopelessness. The biggest problem is how a majority of those warehoused under these conditions will return to the community. Angry. Bitter. Undereducated and potentially desperate because they were not taught how to thrive in a world unwilling to give them a second chance.
Before a decision is made about how much money should be spent to increase prison security strong consideration must be given to rehabilitative programming. Higher education and vocational training with placement are fundamental to ending prison violence and impacting recidivism. A marketable skill set teaches autonomy, competence, relatedness and prepares people for re-entry in such a way they can create opportunities for themselves. They can thrive. Punishment does not do these things. California, Texas, and New York dealt with the problem now facing NC prison officials. They are focused on rehabilitation and are moving their notoriously violent punitive prison systems toward more effective corrections.
Hiring and training more personnel is an external, cosmetic effect, that like building more prisons, does nothing to alter the internal culture of prison management. The murders of five NC prison guards in six months may be a result of staffing vacancies, but it is also an indictment of the whole penal system. Prisoners who have no incentives to change their behavior, and are hopeless do stupid, vicious things. Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t. When more punishment and security is the only response the state fails in its duty to the public and those it incarcerates.
*This was a response to a News and Observer Op-Ed article by the editorial staff, published Nov 13, 2017. As of this post they had not yet published my article.