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Prisons: Problems and Prospects - Restorative Justice In Corrections

inmates public program prisoners

A notion that is tied up with the issue of prison work is the presumption of profitability. It stands to reason that no outsider could object to prisoner contributions of a charitable nature. If the products of prison labor were items lovingly donated to the needy and disabled, no claim of unfair competition could easily arise. More importantly, such labor could humanize the inmates in the public's eyes, and raise prisons in the citizens' esteem, since prisons would be sponsors of the beneficent contributions of inmates.

Moneymaking in prisons has a disreputable history. Before the prison was invented, jailors turned a profit by running extortion rackets, charging detainees for room, board, leg irons, and custody services. In many early American prisons, inmates were routinely rented out as cheap labor. The prisoners became convenient and timely substitutes for slaves working in Southern plantations when slavery was abolished (Christianson). Contract labor therefore survived for many decades in the Deep South and dovetailed with prison-operated plantation systems.

The industrial revolution gave birth to the notion of the industrial prison, the concept of a factory behind walls that could be run at no public expense. This idea has been repeatedly revived in more recent debates, with the proviso that prisoners should be paid a free-world wage. At this juncture in the evolution of the world economy, the last suggestion smacks of particular irony, given the export of jobs to third-world countries in which labor costs compare unfavorably to American prison wages.

Nonprofit work by inmates, however, has acquired new stature, because it can be subsumed under the principle of restorative justice. Though this concept is abstract and somewhat vague, it has attracted some prison administrators because it has sounded like a goal with potential public appeal. Definitions of restorative justice vary, but they include the notion of a "process of reparation and rehabilitation," of "'a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance'" (Van Ness and Strong, p. 24). In the pursuit of reconciliation and restoration, "the offender is held accountable and [is] required to make reparation" (p. 25).

According to a study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, one of the key principles of restorative justice is that "accountability for the. . .offender means accepting responsibility and acting to repair the harm done. . .repairing the harm and rebuilding relationships in the community—is the primary goal of restorative justice. . . . Results are measured by how much repair is done rather than by how much punishment is inflicted" (p. 5). In other words, the offender has to substantially contribute to the public good to compensate for the public harm that he has caused.

The concept of restoration applies individually to encounters of contrite offenders and forgiving victims. It applies collectively to organized activities that benefit the community at large, paying the public back for harm that has been done, and generating goodwill and forgiveness. This objective is one that in practice applies to prisons because it can justify and undergird the voluntary contributions of prison inmates to communities and individuals within communities that adjoin prisons.

News releases by prison systems frequently detail extensive public service efforts of prisoners, especially those that benefit needy citizens and the disadvantaged. Descriptions in the news items also focus on assistance that has been rendered by inmate crews when emergencies and catastrophes occur in areas where prisons are located.

Corrections Today (the official journal of the American Correctional Association) has a section that describes community service activities by prison inmates. One issue in 1999 listed programs that focused on animals, senior citizens, and combinations of the two. Female offenders in a prison in Pennsylvania were described as having "contributed nearly 2,900 hours to the construction of a bird rehabilitation building, in which birds can learn to fly in a safe, controlled environment" (Tischler, 1999, p. 88). A more consequential construction project (in South Dakota) was described as supplying elderly citizens with "affordable, low-maintenance, energy-efficient, homes in their hometowns where they have friends and family ties." The homes in question were all constructed in the prison, and transported to small rural communities (Harry, 1999, p. 89). In Oklahoma inmates rescued dogs from animal shelters, trained them, and donated them as pets to the elderly. According to the program's director, "most of the recipients are alone. The pets help put meaning back into their lives." The official also testified that "I've been in corrections since 1976 and this is one of the only truly productive programs that I've seen" (Clayton, p. 87).

From a camp infelicitously called the Deadwood Corrections Camp, prison crews debarked to fight California forest fires. The correctional lieutenant running this program explained that "the inmates get a feeling of self-worth and a feeling of accomplishment," and "society is repaid." Some members of local society (a county board of supervisors) presented the inmate firefighters with a formal certificate of appreciation (Tischler, 1999, p. 84).

The June 1998 issue of Corrections Today described a Wisconsin program in which prisoners refurbished donated wheelchairs, "to supply mobility with dignity to those individuals who have no insurance or no financial means to acquire medical equipment" (Harry, 1998, p. 92). In a second Wisconsin program, inmates constructed birdhouses for endangered birds and "rocking horses and toys for Head Start and other community agencies." The warden of this institution explained:

We need to do what we can to give back to the community and offenders need to be a part of that, to provide some kind of restitution. The inmates feel good about doing this, and maybe for the first time in their lives they've gotten some positive feedback from. . .their communities. (Tischler, 1998, p. 84)

A prisoner-participant alluded to feedback as the "warmth in the smile of an elder and the spark of happiness in a child's eye over receiving something we've learned to take pride in" (p. 84). Similar sentiments were expressed in a program in Arizona in which prisoners transcribed children's books into Braille. According to the officer running this program, "the inmates receive satisfaction from their roles in shedding some light into the dark world of blind kids" (Harry, 1998, p. 93). A program in Iowa produced innumerable book-to-tape transcriptions for the disabled and educational institutions. In one instance, "a tutorial manual of Microsoft systems for Iowa's Commission for the Blind that was so well-received, the tape was posted on the Internet and has received inquiries from as far away as Japan and Ireland" (Harry, 1998, p. 86).

In some accounts, the accomplishments of the inmates and of prisons are meticulously quantified. The New York State prison system, for example, has reported that during a two-week ice storm "952 (prison) employees and 8,893 inmates worked for more than 68,000 hours clearing trees and other debris from roads. [One New York State prison] filled more than 21,100 sandbags. . .. By the end of the storm, [the prisons] had served 392,000 meals to shelters in neighboring towns" (Tischler, 1998, p. 87).

Projects such as these reflect correctional policies that may easily be in tune with public sentiments. The Vermont State Department of Corrections conducted consumers' surveys and reported the results of the study under the subheading "Market Research Finds Support for Restorative Justice" (Gorczyk and Perry). According to the authors—the Commissioner of the Department and the Director of Planning—"the public wants the process [of corrections] to be positive—one that adds value, not simply one that adds cost" (p. 79). The authors concluded that "the people want justice that is restorative rather than retributive. . .. They want us to provide offenders with the opportunities to improve the quality of life, not spend a small fortune to inflict pain on the offender" (p. 83).

Officials in Vermont claimed that "these findings have driven our policy and planning" (p. 83). If other states follow Vermont's lead, this development could significantly affect the prospects of constructive change in corrections.

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