By Ed Mead
For many years I have railed against the approach taken by the Department of Corrections (DOC) in connection with its role vis-a-vis the public's interest in being free from current levels of criminal victimization. It has been my position that the Department's real objective lies in maintaining a smooth running prison system, not in serving the community's need for public safety. In addition to operating quiet prisons, DOC seeks to project a public image that reflects the currently popular viewpoint on criminal justice issues. Today that outlook is one of being tough on criminals.
Despite an unprecedented prison building binge and the systematic overcrowding of prisoners, not just in Washington state but nationally, the crime rate continues to climb. The state refuses to look at the social roots of this problem, such as high unemployment, widespread poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor, racism, etc., and instead they focus all their attention on the errant individual. "So what," they say, "if capitalism is incapable of providing enough jobs for everyone; the fact that you don't have work is proof that you are scum." In short, you are the sole cause of the problem and must accept all responsibility for it. If this is the situation, then it's time for prisoners to take a modicum of responsibility for changing not only the perception, but the underlying reality as well.
Some prisoners have been working to ensure that we are able to obtain employment when released to the outside world. One means of accomplishing this is to develop the skills necessary for finding a job. While the prison system does have vocational programs it occasionally touts to the public as proof of its efforts to rehabilitate prisoners, these are generally both outdated and ineffective. Here at the Reformatory, for example, we had a vocational machine shop in which all of the heavy machine tools, lathes, etc., came off of a World War II navy ship. Whereas in the real world of modern machining practices, machine tools such as lathes are newly built and guided by computers.
We are already disadvantaged as a result of our status as convicted felons; in order to get hired and to keep a job we almost have to be better at our duties than other workers. Since the hardware available to us for learning job skills is mostly outdated and our access to it limited, we need to focus on learning skills that we can develop in our cells, independently of any state-run program. One of the few ways we can accomplish this is by building computer skills, learned in our cells on personally owned computers. Accordingly, we have been trying to develop our abilities in the computer field by first getting approval for having personally owned computers in our cells.
This has been a long and difficult struggle. In the mid-1980s we spent 2 1/2 years fighting to get permission to have personally owned computers. There was excuse after excuse (space limitations, liability, existing policy, etc.), but with persistence and right on our side we slowly wore them down. Computers were eventually approved and we had them for three years without a single computer-related infraction being issued. During this period many prisoners were able to learn skills they would not have otherwise obtained, and are today working on the streets in the computer field as a direct result of this program.
I will give you one example. Jeff Thompson was a construction worker on the outside. While on the job he fell from a roof he was working on and sustained a serious back injury. Because of his injury, Jeff was physically unable to work. His disability payments were held up by red tape, leaving him both broke and disabled. He turned to dealing "speed" to make ends meet, an activity which ultimately landed him in prison. Jeff's compensation payment finally arrived, years after he was imprisoned. Since his injury prevented him from going back into construction work, Jeff bought a computer and learned how to use it in the privacy of his cell. When he was released he applied for a job in the computer field. Competing for the position were two people who had just obtained Associate of Arts degrees in computer science. After interviewing the two graduates, the employer talked to Jeff for two minutes and hired him on the spot (prior record and all). Why? Because Jeff knew what he was talking about when it came to computers. He had learned his lessons well.
Jeff's story is only one of the successes achieved during the three years we had computers. There are many others. The program was so successful that the Assistant Director of Corrections sent a memo to every prison in the state, authorizing them to implement a similar inmate computer ownership program at their facilities, and he attached a copy of the Reformatory's inmate computer ownership policy for them to use as an example. Notwithstanding this progress and the absence of problems, a new director of the division of prisons was named who opposed the program. He promptly terminated it. We were given thirty days within which to ship our computers out of the prison. Our typewriters were even limited to just one page of memory. An anti-computer hysteria swept the state's prison system.
That was 3 1/2 years ago. The prisoncrat responsible for the loss of our computer ownership program is now history, and after several years of additional struggle we may again be on the verge of getting the machines back into our cells. But there are problems that will destine the new policy to fail. Rather than take the old policy, the one DOC officials touted as a model for all prisons in the state to use, tweak it here and there where real or potential problems existed, and issue it, prison officials instead wrote a whole new and very restrictive policy. Under this new policy any violation of the rules, however minor, will result in the permanent loss of the inmate's computer. At the same time, under the new policy prisoners are no longer permitted to possess floppy disks. What this means is that the complex program you've been developing for the past six months, the book you've been writing, the legal work you've been doing, cannot be saved on a backup floppy. If your hard drive crashes or fails, as all of them ultimately do, you are out all of the work you've done. It is lost. Rather than put up with such nonsense, convicts will use readily available floppy disks to backup their work. Since that is a violation of the new policy, nearly every prisoner will be subject to the loss of his computer. Our captors will then be able to smugly say, "We tried our best, but those manipulative convicts abused our trust."
In point of fact they have only grudgingly implemented this latest computer policy (if it is actually implemented at all), and they've designed it in such a way as to be sure to fail. Even in the unlikely event that somehow the new computer policy did not fail, prisoners would still have a hard time learning the sorts of things that enabled Jeff to successfully compete on the job market with recent college graduates. The new policy authorizes only three pieces of application software on our hard disks (to be installed by the property room, since we can't have floppy disks). These are a specific brand of word processor, database, and spreadsheet. Jeff learned the most about computers from learning how to program them, using the C programming language. This and other necessary types of software would not be permitted under the new policy.
Will allowing prisoners to have personally owned computers in their cells be coddling people who have offended against society? Herein lies the basis for the seemingly endless debate between efficacy of the punishment versus the rehabilitation approach to crime control. These philosophical concepts mask a very real social question. As demonstrated earlier in the example of the computers, the rehabilitative model has never been more than half-heartedly implemented by prison officials, despite the public's will. Oh, wardens became superintendents, guards became correctional officers, prisoners became residents, and prisons themselves were transformed in to correctional institutions. But other than the verbiage, very little actually changed. The absence of significant progress was blamed as the reason for going back to the punishment approach. The death penalty was restored, prison sentences significantly lengthened, paroles limited, prison living conditions eroded, training programs gutted, and so on. That is where we are at today.
What has this cruel, vindictive, and murderous approach to a social problem netted the community? Washington state's top prisoncrat, Chase Riveland, was recently quoted in the Seattle Times as saying "that if the state continues to lock up criminals at its current rate everybody in Washington will be in a prison or working for one by the year 2056." There are some valid reasons for this alarm. The prison population in Washington's prisons jumped 71 percent between 1980 and 1992, while the state's general population increased by only 13 percent. During this 12 year period prison operating costs have risen from $139 million to $700 million. At the same time the public was paying more to lock people up for longer, crime rates in the state continued to increase significantly.
I am not trying to pass personally owned computers off as some sort of penal panacea, but rather as a single example of what can be accomplished if prisoners themselves are able to implement vocational programs. The computers provide prisoners with job skills they would not otherwise have. With decent employment we don't return to prison. Progress is made. More, since the computers are purchased at inmate expense, this progress is made at no cost to the tax-payers. What could possibly be the objection to such programs? Why would prisoncrats oppose implementing or deliberately cripple them?
Conservatives admit that the "get tough" philosophy has not succeeded, but argue that what we need is yet larger doses of the same old ineffective punishment medicine. They will cling to this belief, and have done so historically, until even minor offenses warrant the death penalty. More fear and terror is always their only solution. In feudal England this trend played itself out until such "crimes" as killing a rabbit on private land, cutting down a tree on a public lane, or picking a pocket were capital offenses. The ineffectiveness of this approach was demonstrated by the pick pockets who would ply their trade at the crowd that gathered for the public hanging of a fellow pick pocket. In other words, the punishment mongers will continue to prescribe larger and larger doses of violence, even after such things as jay-walking have become capital crimes subject to summary execution. Is this the kind of society we want to live in? It's the logical outcome of today's justice policies.
One thing is made clear by the overwhelming failure of the punishment approach, and that is that current trends in criminal justice thinking are terribly wrong. The answers are complex and well beyond the scope of this brief article, but a step in the right direction can be taken by allowing prisoners to organize and implement their own rehabilitation programs. When this task has been left to the prisoncrats it has been less than half-heartedly implemented. We as prisoners must take the responsibility for our own rehabilitation. Fighting for access the tools necessary to accomplish this task, such as personally owned computers, is a good step in the right direction. Although working for greater computer access won't by itself make the revolution, it is nonetheless an issue we as rights conscious prisoners should be working on. It is an important step toward our collective empowerment.
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