It was the summer of 1976. I was between teaching jobs. I answered an ad from Hutchinson Community College for teaching government and Economics. I found out that the teaching venue would be the Hutchinson Reformatory.
I thought it might be an interesting and challenging experience. On my first evening of teaching I had to sign a liability waiver stating that all force could be used against me to secure the control of the prison in case of a riot.
I had a class of 33 inmates who were taking the class for various reasons. There was one guard outside the room in case I needed “help.” Luckily I never needed assistance.
The only time I felt a bit of apprehension was when a storm knocked out all the lights. I did not know whether I should climb on the desk or huddle under the desk. In reality I did neither. For a brief moment, cigarette lighters showed up all over the room. (They could smoke in those days.)
The crisis in my mind quickly passed. I was able to go home safely to my young wife and child.
I learned a lot from this experience. I developed some very positive relationships with my students. But before I was misled into a false sense of security, one of the guards informed me that I had just talked to a mass murderer. He had seemed like the gentlest human being I had ever visited with.
I was not able to look up the crimes of the rest of my students. It was probably just as well. However, if the statistics held true as it did for the overall prison population in Kansas, 53 percent were in prison for crimes related to drugs.
Now what do I make of this rather humbling experience?
My personal contact with the prison population surfaced about 10 years later. In the midst of a very hectic teaching and athletic director job, I signed up with a church organization called, M-2. I was assigned an inmate to visit once a month in the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Surely I could meet that requirement.
For the next 10 years I followed this man through minimum, medium, maximum, and work release facilities. I saw him when his family rejected him entirely. I saw how prison interrupted his life. I saw how a very intelligent person with a vast array of technical skills will probably never realize his full potential.
After ten years of incarceration, he was released to the public. I have kept in contact with him and he has gone through a failed marriage and numerous jobs which he cannot seem to hold.
Before anyone jumps to any conclusions, please remember that prisons, along with other forms of punishment, are designed to keep the public safe. In fact, public safety is a major priority of government. Can prisons provide reassurance to the public as well as ways for us to benefit from the use of our tax dollars?
Page 2 of 2 - Shortly after my teaching in prison experience, the state cut out all educational programs which could lead to a degree. The citizen needs to ask the question, “Am I better off, am I safer, knowing that we house more prisoners than any other western nation in the world?”
It takes $24,000 to house one inmate for one year. How can we best rehabilitate a person to become a tax paying citizen rather than a tax sucking individual? Are there some crimes so horrific that the individual cannot be rehabilitated? What percentage of the prison population should never come in contact with the public? In other words, how many people are so violent in behavior that they are injurious to themselves and to others?
How is the public connected to the prison population? A lot of us have never been directly a part of this segment of our society. Perhaps you have never even known someone who has “served time.” Knowing the volume of people who are incarcerated, it is quite likely that a person you know might be serving a jail sentence.
The cost of providing for each inmate continues to rise every year. The cost of building and maintaining prisons also increases every year. Finally, the cost to society in broken homes and destroyed relationships cannot be measured in dollar amounts. What are the answers and solutions to this huge problem?
There are many perspectives to this issue. Some would say that whoever commits the offense must pay the penalty. However, even with that reasoning one must be able to see the cost of our prison system becoming a huge burden to the taxpayer.
Some might say that human nature will always have those who violate the norms of society. We must continually pay the price to keep society safe. One must be careful in giving “solutions” for crime when the problem is so much more complex than that. However, ideas that should have some merit include the following:
Provide financial support to child care and early childhood education. It would seem to me this would be crucial in trying to meet the crime problem before it takes root.
Become actively involved in supporting churches and other community ventures which strengthen “family values.” Positive family support is critical in a person’s formative years. When no family is available, community help is a must. We are all in this together! We will survive and prosper as one or we most likely will fall as a community or nation.