'The Mess We’re In': Five Steps Towards the Transformation of Prison Cultures
Lynn S. Branham
Saint Louis University - School of Law
Indiana Law Review, Vol. 44, p. 703, 2011
Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-16
Few dispute that conditions in prisons need to be improved – that, for example, prisoners with mental-health problems need to have those problems addressed, and addressed effectively, while they are confined. But the more fundamental question is whether prisons can be, not just improved, but transformed. Transformation in this context means deep and sustained changes in the ethos of those who work and live in prisons. That ethos would reflect at least four precepts: (1) hope as an imperative; (2) the viability of renewal; (3) the catharsis that attends personal responsibility and accountability; and (4) the duty and call, extending to prisoners and correctional employees alike, to respect human dignity.
This article rests on the proposition that such “culture busting” in prisons is possible and describes five key steps that need to be taken by each state and the federal government to effectuate the envisioned transformation in their prisons. Those steps include: (1) Establish a maximal limit on the per-capita imprisonment rate in the jurisdiction that is at least 50% lower than the current national rate and adopt mechanisms to responsibly implement and enforce the limit; (2) Adopt a comprehensive plan to bring transparency and accountability into the operations of the jurisdiction’s prisons, in part through an independent public entity’s monitoring of, and issuance of public reports on, conditions within those prisons; (3) Modify prison policies, practices, and programs to reflect and inculcate a restorative-justice ethos within the prisons; (4) Ensure that a trained and dedicated mentor is assigned to each prisoner at the outset of his or her incarceration; and (5) Implement procedures to accord prisoners a central role in the development of their individualized reentry plan, whose implementation would commence upon their incarceration.
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