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Rehabilitation versus Punishment=Attitude

I'm a prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) in Walla Walla, Washington. I'm one of the Indeterminate Sentence Prisoners who the Parole Board has to determine is "rehabilitated" before they will release me back into society. While I have to be rehabilitated to secure my release, prisoners sentenced under Washington's Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) are merely being "punished" (the Parole Board has no authority over them) and rehabilitation is not a prerequisite before they are released back into society.

I understand that several states have similar sentencing systems as the State of Washington-- the system will be explained in more detail below. What is the equation Rehabilitation versus Punishment = Attitude?

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) provides that the Parole Board shall not release a prisoner unless in its opinion his "rehabilitation" has been complete and he is a fit subject for release. RCW 9.95.100. To my knowledge, the Washington State Parole Board has never defined the meaning of the word rehabilitation to the prisoners under its control. Old guideline prisoners, the only ones who must be rehabilitated, are treated no differently than SRA offenders who are merely being punished. What follows is a recent history of the law of rehabilitation as it has unfolded in Washington State.

In today's society, there is a so-called `war on drugs' and the prison population throughout the nation's prison system has skyrocketed for drug related offenses. Prisoners in Washington who committed drug-related offenses prior to July 1, 1975, had a statutory right, created through RCW 69.32.090, to be rehabilitated through treatment programs within the prisons. That statute was repealed during the 1975 legislative session. See State v. Barnett, 17 Wn.App. 53, 55 (1977). This is only one example of the "rehabilitation" programs taken by law in the State of Washington.

In 1977, the Washington Supreme Court held in Bresolin v. Morris, 88 Wn.2d 167, that rehabilitation of convicted persons is a legitimate governmental interest and institutional goal, but is not an enforceable right of instutitionalized persons. The Washington court reasoned that "the legislature in this state also adopted rehabilitation as a penal goal" through RCW 72.08.101. The court went on to say that the concept of rehabilitation as a practical goal of confinement is under question. Id. at 173.

The statute, RCW 72.08.101, that gave the state the penal goal of rehabilitation was amended in 1979. In 1981 the SRA was adopted. The intent of the 1981 SRA did not mention rehabilitation, but stressed that the "system should punish the offender for violating the laws." RCW 72.09.010.

In 1983, the Washington Supreme Court addressed the relevancy of rehabilitation. State v. Phelan, 100 Wn.2d 508. The court said: "The Board is as much concerned with `just punishment,' `deterrence,' and `incapacitation' as with rehabilitation." Id. at 514.

The previous indeterminate sentencing system focused on rehabilitation by basing sentences on the individual's characteristics, rather than the nature of the crime and attempting to predict future behavior to coerce offenders into reforming. Under the SRA, punishment is the paramount purpose. State v. Rice, 98 Wn2d 384, 393, 655 P.2d 1145 (1982). Rehabilitation is irrelevant because it cannot change the length of the sentence. Thus, it is relegated to a minor role and comes into play only at the initiation of the offender. That brings us to the answer to the equation: Rehabilitation v. Punishment = Attitude.

The attitude among the majority of prisoners throughout the nation's prison system is "who needs an education or vocation skills? I was sentenced to prison to be punished!" This negative attitude is facilitated by the indifference of the system and by prison officials.

Every prisoner needs an education and/or vocational training. If we had an education and job skills in the first place, most of us wouldn't be in prison.

While nobody has tried to define rehabilitation to prisoners, the Washington State Legislature has declared it to be vocational and education programs within the institutions. RCW 72.62.010. Regardless of the definition of the law that a prisoner is sentenced under (rehabilitation v. punishment), the nation's prison system should not change its purpose of rehabilitation. The inmates who avail themselves of programs during their incarceration, to accomplish their rehabilitation, present the least risk of recidivism. Most institutions offer the inmate the opportunity to educate himself/herself or vocational trades programs. At WSP there are numerous educational and vocational programs from which inmates have obtained certificates of completion and associate degrees. For example, in 1992, the Walla Walla Community College, cited at WSP, graduated a goodly number of inmates with degrees and/or certificates in the following areas: 52 GEDs; 3 High School; 1 Carpentry Certificate; 1 Upholstery Certificate; 3 Barbering Certificates; 1 Bookkeeping Certificate; 34 Basis Custodial Services Certificates; 19 Advanced Custodial Services Certificates; 1 Computer Application Specialist Certificate; 2 AAAS Carpentry Degrees; 2 AAAS Engineering Degrees; and 11 AA Degrees.

It is your responsibility as a prisoner to break the stereotype attitude of the garden variety prisoner and make better use of your time than most people in society by taking advantage of the educational and vocational programs your facility has to offer. If your facility doesn't have sufficient opportunities to rehabilitate yourself, the person who can take steps to change that is the person who looks at himself in the mirror in the morning.

The bottom line is an education and/or job skills are essential for prisoners to successfully reintegrate back into society and law makers, prison officials, and prisoners should all work toward that goal.

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