What's In Your Wallet?

By Jon E. Yount, 2005

PPS Executive Director William DiMascio recently advised the House Judiciary Committee that not only has "re-entry" become a buzzword in the corrections field but also that 44 percent of inmates who return to their communities after serving their sentences "recidivate" within three years of release. He added: "That is the terrible failing of a system that aims to 'correct.'" Justice & Mercy Executive Director John Rush is quoted as deploring the DOC's LACK of empirical evidence that allocating 98% of its programs resulted in improved outcomes.

Why does "re-entry" fail for so many? Clearly the answer has not been found in increasing Pennsylvania's prison population from 5,000 in 1969 to more than 41,000 now or by increasing funding of failed legislation, policies and practices from 30 million to 1.3 billion during that period. This history of failure requires the General Assembly, DOC and PBPP, if they truly seek to improve public safety by reducing "recidivism," to focus less on punishment for yesterday's offenses and concentrate more on what statistics illustrate is most likely to occur tomorrow when inmates are released!

DOC Secretary Jeffrey Beard informed the Judiciary Committee that "the number of parole violators has increased 51 percent over a seven year period." What possible justification could exist for annually pouring a billion dollars into a corrections system that so routinely fails to "protect the public?" What is this plethora of correctional/parole "experts" missing? Could it be that those "pros" are failing to ask inmates-- and themselves: "if you were released from prison tomorrow, and if you could have one asset available that would most facilitate your success on parole, what would it be?" I have asked many that question. Although a few have offered bizarre answers ("a new car"), almost all ultimately conclude that adequate money/financing is the key. What is your response?

But, as occurred with the parolee released from SCI-Cresson during 2004 who immediately robbed two banks to obtain "finances," the DOC and the PBPP, instead of ensuring that released prisoners have adequate resources, appear to do everything in their power to squeeze the last drop of public-safety-saving "blood" from the poorest of the poor before shuttling them through the DOC's "Doors of Probable Return" to try to cope with overwhelming demands of impoverished survival.

For example, the DOC (1) requires inmates to pay $4 per requested health-care exam and $2 per each prescribed medication, (2) confiscates 20% of all inmate wages and monetary gifts as payment for yesterday's fines, costs and restitution (the DOC triumphantly informed the House Judiciary Committee that $15 million had been collected since 1998), (3) deducts up to $60 per yesterday's offenses from a prisoner's account for the Victim Compensation Fund as a mandatory parole-release provision, (4) prescribes transfer of inmates to prisons far form their homes, thereby levying the significant re-entry burden of paying for bus/train tickets home (about $50 from SCI-Green to Philadelphia- home for 40% of DOC inmates), and (5) levies outrageous fees upon inmates for telephone contact with families who are often poor but yet vital to re-entry.

There is little "free" for parolees in a "free society." For example, those with drug convictions are denied welfare and food stamps as a relief from poverty. The PBPP, as Acting Chairman Michael Green informed the House Committee, attempts to "successfully re-integrate" parolees into the community by "enhanced collection of supervision fees" to defray cost of supervision! Could the payment of-- or failure to pay-- hundreds of dollars in such fees (in)directly result in the "23 percent increase in the number of parole violators" cited by DOC Secretary Beard?

When half of the parolees return to prison, those responsible for policies and practices so counterproductive to public safety simply feign surprise, blame "criminogenic" aspects of offenders, and then stick their collective heads back into the sand rather than pursue viable alternatives.

I propose that the General Assembly and the DOC create a mandatory "savings account" system for inmates that would require (1) individual interest-bearing savings accounts, (2) a percentage (20%-50%, based on the length of minimum term) of an inmate's wages be deposited into that account each month (inmates would be encouraged to voluntarily deposit more), (3) creation of an "Offenders Re-Entry Fund" from which the DOC must withdraw "matching funds" equal to inmates; monthly wages for deposit in the inmates' respective savings accounts EACH MONTH (the Fund may be maintained by the $7 million annually fleeced from inmates and their families via telephone-system "kickbacks"), (4) That debts (restitution, fines, child support, Victims Fund payments, etc.) may not be deducted from an inmate's account/ wages until the savings account accumulates a total to be predetermined (e.g. $1000-$5000) based on time to be served prior to release, (6) participation of inmates in "classes" designed to promote comprehension of the value of savings accounts, and (7) that only the parolee ay deduct funds from a savings account, with the proviso that for a period of six months, for example, such withdrawals would require approval of a parole agent.

If public safety is truly the issue, than powers-that-be must look forward rather than backward for solutions! Although the foregoing proposal would not eliminate recidivism, if it prevents even 10-20% of failed re-entries, not only would public safety be greatly improved but the cost of incarceration (an average of 28,000 per inmate per year) would also be significantly reduced. However, the greatest obstacle to reducing recidivism may be the tendency in or society to provide fewer support services for those being paroled or discharged, a trend nurtured by a prison industry that, using inmates as a commodity, brings annual revenues of $50 billion and therefore is less intent on successful re-entry and public safety than on selling health care systems, commissary services, poor food quality and surveillance systems.

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