What comes to your mind when you think of prison? For most people, all they can pull from is what they’ve seen in TV and movies. Shows like Prison Break. Movies like Shawshank Redemption. Or even Prison Mike from The Office.
The truth is that most of the depictions we see are far from accurate. While I was living in Gainesville, FL, I went once a week into a county prison with some men from church. Even now, I still go to other prisons around North Central Florida with the same group.
When we think about prison, we think of gang members, rapists and murderers. And while there are definitely those types of people in prison, there are also men and women who are not bad people. They’re just bad decision makers.
It’s easy to grow up in your safe neighborhood, drive a car your dad paid for, get your way paid through college and then come out the other end and look down on the kinds of people who end up in prison. You think things like, “Well, they should have made better choices.” And you’re right, they should have. But your vision is only viewed through a filter of privilege.
Most privileged people don’t like to think of themselves as privileged because it would suggest they didn’t receive everything they have because of their hard work and abilities. And while hard work is definitely a factor, the truth is many successful people today could have had completely different stories if they had grown up in different situations with different parents in a different neighborhood.
I was on reduced lunch in high school at what many in my hometown of Ocala refer to as the ghetto school, and I still consider myself privileged. To me, privileged doesn’t just mean you had rich parents or grandparents. It can be identified by something as simple as, “Did your mom go over spelling words with you at night and check your homework?” My mom did. Part of my privilege was the attentiveness of the parents I had. Many people in prison had to raise themselves, and maybe a few brothers and sisters as well.
The U.S. currently has 2.4 million men and women in prison. A report by the organization, “The Price of Prisons,” states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $31,307 per year. “In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it’s anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000,” it reads.
Think about this: my first year out of college, I made about $18,000 as a valet at a hospital. I would have been worth more in prison. If that doesn’t make you at least want to reconsider what is happening in our justice system, then please stop reading here.
I’m not suggesting people receive literal Get Out of Jail Free cards, but many in prison have served their time long enough and possibly shouldn’t have even been there to begin with. And I’m glad to see the Obama administration drawing some attention to this lately. There are petty crimes that put men and women behind bars that we really need to reassess as a country.
Many prisoners need to be in prison. Many get out on what I feel is far too early of a sentence. Part of me thinks some people need harsher punishments. Maybe bring back Alcatraz for some of these horrible offenders. Honestly, I have a tough time being sympathetic to wicked people.
Still, many are just decent people who made bad decisions. I know because I’ve met with many of the men. I’ve laughed with them. I’ve prayed with them. Week after week, I would go in behind the razorwire to encourage my brothers in Christ, and I would leave encouraged by them. They would shake my hand and hug me and tell me they were pulling for me in my circumstances at the time.
What if you got caught stealing money out of your mom’s purse when you were a kid and she sent you to time out for 40 years? That seems insane, right? It’s not how you discipline and change a child. Discipline is meant to correct a behavior, not for endless punishment.
We need organizations like House of Hope in Gainesville, FL. Programs like these help prisoners transition back into society after being disconnected from it. They help them find jobs, get their stuff together and start contributing to their communities again. I am close with a few guys who went through the program and they are some of the best men Gainesville has to offer right now.
What if they would have just gone back into their old lives right after prison? Odds are they would not be hard working, tax paying contributors to their society with beautiful families. They could have easily ended up back behind bars.
The term recidivism refers to someone’s relapse back into crime, and it is often after they have already served time. Look at these stats on it:
- Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
- Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
- Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
My message to you today is not to tell you that you should be doing more about this. It’s not even to promote the House of Hope, though I wish you would consider donating or getting involved somehow.
All I am asking is for us to take a step back away from our preconceived ideas about prison and what our perceptions of the types of people who end up in prison are. The truth is, many of us could have ended up there if we’d been caught. And many more could have not ended up there had they had someone in their lives to help them make better decisions.
It’s as simple as that.