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COLD FEET: Birds take to the ice as winter makes its appearance at Yellowstone National Park. / Photo by Nancy Williams

Today's word on journalism

Monday, November 5, 2007

On Objectivity:

"I still insist that 'objective journalism' is a contradiction in terms. But I want to draw a very hard line between the inevitable reality of 'subjective journalism' and the idea that any honestly subjective journalist might feel free to estimate a crowd at a rally for some candidates the journalist happens to like personally at 2,000 instead of 612 -- or to imply that a candidate the journalist views with gross contempt, personally, is a less effective campaigner than he actually is."

-- Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear & Loathing: CORRECTIONS, RETRACTIONS, APOLOGIES, COP-OUTS, ETC., a 1972 memo to Rolling Stone editor Jann S. Wenner, excerpted in the current (November 2007) issue of Harper’s Magazine (Thanks to alert WORDster Andy Merton)

Daggett County jail escape spotlights a bigger problem: Failure of our penal system

By Jen Beasley

October 17, 2007 | In the aftermath of the recent escape of convicted murders Danny Martin Gallegos and Juan Carlos Diaz-Arevalo from the Daggett County Jail, corporal punishment has made a remarkable comeback. State corrections brass have been mercilessly flogged, whipped, and shamed in the stocks of public opinion.

The charges: Two counts of failure to adequately supervise dirty-rotten-criminal-bad-guy-low-lifes, and dozens of counts of irresponsibly leasing cell space from mercenarious and inept county jail contractors to the extreme detriment of public safety.

Oh, the horror! The injustice! The satisfying thwack of a thrown tomato!

Oh, the incredible failure to see the big picture.

Though the caper's ensuing clamor has succeeded in drawing the public's attention to the unpleasant subject of prison organization, these criticisms of Utah's prisons grossly miss the point. They are na´ve, Johnny-come-lately, distracted observances of fresh cracks that have arisen in the already shattered rubble of a system that has lain broken on society's doorstep practically since its inception.

The real problem isn't the lack of supervision, but the overcrowding that creates a lack of supervision. The real problem isn't the leasing of cell blocks, but the recidivism that causes the overcrowding that forces the state to lease the cell blocks. The real problem isn't that inmates get sent back to prison, but that prison did nothing for them the first time.

If sending criminals to prison accomplishes nothing the first time, what's the point? And where are the properly aimed flying foodstuffs?

According to Department of Justice statistics, 67 percent of inmates released from prison in 1992 had re-offended by 2002. Really, it's little wonder. Doing time is just that: being told exactly what to do in every respect for days that become weeks that morph into years. What to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside, what to wear. Eventually, prisoners' minds become so numbed--such Pavlovian houndbrains--that they are able to act only when a bell is rung ordering them to. There is no thinking in prison. Thinking is not required. Thinking is discouraged.

The prisoner becomes institutionalized.

A 1996 Austrian study published in Forensic Science International found that inmates incarcerated for long terms experienced "significant" deterioration of cognitive abilities such as memory and concentration while doing their time.

Translation: we're making them worse.

Instead of removing people who have committed crimes from society to mold them into better people, we capture prisoners only to let them mold. And once sufficient atrophy has occurred in the brain of an inmate, only then do we release them on parole into a world where practical decisions bombard them at every turn.

No wonder they make bad ones. No wonder 67 percent of them fail.

It doesn't have to be this way. Prisons don't have to be set up as waiting rooms where those who most need training about how to function in society are instead set to whistle and thumb through Sports Illustrated until their name is called and they are released back into society unchanged. Regardless of their offenses, forgers, addicts, rapists, tax evaders--and yes, even murderers--have functioning brains.

We could harness them. We could shape them. We could improve them. Every ounce of planning required for Diaz-Arevalo and Gallegos to make their escape could instead have instead been invested in something of use to society.

Take Colorado Correctional Industries as an example of good behavior in this department. A subsection of the Colorado Correctional System, CCI employs inmates in a variety of jobs that range from raising livestock to building office furniture to arranging flower bouquets. A challenge issued to design a better bear-proof garbage can led to one inmate designing something ingenious enough to be implemented, manufactured, and sold to Colorado State Parks. The Durango Herald reported that in testing, the can endured 90 minutes of interrogation by three grizzly bears without cracking under the pressure.

Just think: a "bad guy" had a good idea.

Such programs not only produce benefits in the form of goods that can be sold cheaply to state and private enterprise, but they also generate revenue. CCI earned $38 million in 2006. Utah's version of CCI, Utah Correctional Industries, generated $17 million in 2006 with embroidery, printing, construction and data entry programs, among others. Since each inmate in Utah costs approximately $23,000 per year to incarcerate, doesn't it make sense to put them to work?

No taxpayer money goes toward funding the UCI, but the UCI still generates money. Inmates earn small wages--generally not more than a dollar an hour--and learn skills make them more employable upon release. And according to the May 2007 CCI Connections Newsletter, inmates who participate in the work programs are 50 percent more likely to stay out of prison once released. It's reasonable to believe that similar results are coming from Utah's endeavors.

Unfortunately, the UCI is not very big. There are only about 750 jobs, and inmates have to earn them. But with the horrific failure of the national prison system as the alternative, surely there is sufficient evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that expanding the opportunities for inmate work would make a more effective prison system. At this rate, anything would be a more effective prison system.

So which sounds better? Fifty percent more likely to stay out of jail, or 67 percent likely to return?

Meanwhile another way to better inmates, the Utah State University education program that allowed prisoners to earn their degrees in prison, was cancelled in August. USU couldn't afford it anymore. The program was $600,000 in debt. The Legislature did nothing.

It's too bad. Over a 20-year period, 91 inmates received bachelor's degrees through the program, and according to program administrator Kathleen Robinson, none of the graduates were known to have returned to prison.

Since we're discussing education, let's solve a small story problem. Take 91 college-educated inmates and multiply them by the $23,000 each it would have cost for Utah taxpayers to re-incarcerate them. Now save that money by not re-incarcerating them. You get a fistful of just over $2 million. Yet somehow, the Legislature was unable to find $600,000 to give to USU to keep the program going, but will happily fork over the same amount to ineffectively jail the next 26 inmates that come along.

And statistically, some of those guys will probably be return visitors. Not a good investment by any standards.

Justice-mongers will be quick to point out that inmates should not be "rewarded" for their crimes with education. They must be punished for their perpetrations. They must be made to suffer for their crimes. Giving them skills would be luxurious. Making them smarter would be an affront to their victims. Don't give them books, throw the book at them! It is better to lock them up and forget about them, for they are a pestilence on society. The consequences can be dealt with later. They're bad people, so we'll just have to re-incarcerate them when they re-offend.

And the wheel of justice makes another creaking revolution. It's just the kind of circular logic that gives the revolving door momentum.

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