Institutional failures are everywhere today. Most paroled inmates come back to prison, and college students can’t write. I believe there is a root cause for both of these tragedies, and I think tragedy is not too strong a word. But is it the institutions that are failing us, or is it the wider society? What is the common linkage?
Prison or university? Points given for correct answers.
I learned today that students in college nowadays cannot write. College professor Stanley Fish published an opinion piece on the Web site of The New York Times (8/24/09) where he said college students not only can’t write, but they aren’t being taught to write. While grading papers of his graduate students, he said: “I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program.” When he went to the basic freshman English composition courses he found the students were not learning to write, but rather “…spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” What are these people to do when they finish college?
The college graduate who cannot write is surely not going to law school. He is not getting a job in journalism or publishing. Marketing and advertising are out; they require highly developed verbal skills. Business management requires excellent written communication skills. If you can’t write basic English, how do you put together a coherent business plan?
Most sadly, the foundation of good writing is good thinking. If these folks can’t write, it means they cannot think, and that will surely doom them in this highly technical society. Like ships with no motors, no sails and no moorings, they will drift wherever the currents and tides choose to take them. In so many ways this is the way I see inmates being paroled from our prisons today.
Here in California, the prison system pays some lip service to the concept of rehabilitation. The very foundation of parole is a supposedly rehabilitated person, a person ready to resume his role of productive and responsible citizen. But California prisons rehabilitate damn few of its citizens.
The past few years California has paroled around 125,000 inmates from state prisons each year. Strangely, that same number enter prison on parole violations and new terms every year. That rather conviently keeps the beds well stocked with bodies and maintains the status quo. The recidivism rate is said to be around 70% over three years. That means of the 125,000 people paroled last year, in two more years over 87,000 of them will be back in prison or will have been back.
The perpetual question is always why? Why do we have so many people coming back to prison, year after dreary year? Prisoner administrators say they want to know. Prison activists are desperate to find the reasons. The very few citizens who are actually interested in prisons (mostly families of inmates or crime victims) want to know. And the legislature should want to know, but they have shown they have no stomach for the ugliness of prison issues (at least the California Assembly) so they really don’t want to hear about it. Every interest group has its answer — and offers its plan to solve the problem. The hardened hearts say the felons simply learn to be better criminals in prison and shouldn’t be let out in the first place. The soft hearts will say they weren’t given job training or substance abuse programming or basic educational skills or basic life skills, etc. The cacophony is wide and sometimes loud.
My answer to the question of why we keep churning the same 300,000 or so people through the prison system comes from interacting with inmates over many years, and it’s fairly simple — most of them don’t have anything better to do. Yes, most people who come back to prison are returning to the best alternative in their lives.
My overwhelming impression of most inmates is that they are simply unemployable. Most do not have the basic skills necessary to do any job worth doing. The few who have marginal skills don’t have what it takes to get the few available jobs. The world is a tough row to hoe for people who have never been to prison and have sound basic education and some desirable workplace talents. Without those assets, what do you do?
I often talk with returned inmates about their experiences out in the free world. They are always disappointed to be back, but there is one thing almost all of them say that clearly indicates a serious social issue. “I just couldn’t talk with those people” is usually how it is expressed. Over years, prison inmates get comfortable with one another, in their language, their shared shame, their shared deprivations, etc. Suddenly thrust into the free world, they do not feel equal to other people. They tend to feel regular people (non-criminals) look at them and immediately see them for what they are. And what they most often are contains a lot of poor self-esteem, fear and hopelessness. It’s often said employers can smell fear and desperation on job applicants. When you go into an interview with a prison psyche (and hoping your long-sleeve shirt will cover the tattoos), you can’t possibly project the kind of confidence employers want.
For most people coming out of prison, the degree of difficulty they face often convinces them it’s just easier to go back to prison. They may not say that out loud, but it’s at the heart of the matter. And the saddest thing I have to admit is that many inmates I’ve seen are truly better off in prison than they are on the streets. I’ve worked with homeless people on the streets; most of those folks would be better off with the regular meals, regular sleep, clean clothes, unavailability of drugs, and medical care provided in prisons.
A female inmate comes to mind from many years ago. Let’s call her Cecelia (not her real name). She was around 40 and soon to parole to her home county, a rural one. She was finishing up a substance abuse program where she had done well and was respected for helping other inmates. A basic office services class had given her some rudimentary computer skills along with filing, office procedures, etc. On paper, she was a model of rehabilitation, and she would seem to be set for success. And yet, when you looked into Cecelia’s eyes, you knew she was not going to succeed and you knew she knew it too. Seeing that, I asked her to be honest, and she honored me with her truth.
The depressing story Cecilia kept hidden like so much dirty laundry was heartbreaking. Her reality, hidden under all her successful programming, was that she was “going home” to no place to live and no hope of a job – and most likely drug relapse. The residence address she gave the parole folks was the address of her mom’s house. She and the mother had been fighting all her adult life and had never managed to be civil to one another for more than three days. So she knew she’d be on the streets within the first week. She had no other family, and overnight shelters were the only alternative to life on the streets.
The job opportunities in her rural county were nearly nonexistant to start with. On top of that everyone there knew her, and to hear her tell it she had pilfered, robbed, burgled, bad-checked and disappointed her way out of trust from anyone. I can tell you it’s a sad thing to look into the eyes of such a person, to see the desperate hopelessness and to know there is nothing you can do. In the controlled prison setting, Cecilia did well. She succeeded at challenges given her, she got along well with other inmates and staff. And yet the institution, well meaning as it was, could do nothing but fail to help her realize the successful life she so desperately wanted.
We are all failing Cecelia. Her family fails her. The schools failed her. The social services network persistently fails her. The criminal justice system fails her. I feel I personally failed her; when she asked me what she should do, I had no answer. Our society apparently does not care enough about Cecelia to do anything but let her go back to prison, again and again and again. So she comes to accept that she has nothing better to do.
Hope in our society would seem to lie in the bright young people. Surely their college educations will give them what it takes to find a way to help Cecelia. But if we are failing them by not teaching them to write – and THINK – then how will they help themselves let alone the people we imprison because neither we nor they have anything better to do?