No Parole for Proles | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

No Parole for Proles

Doing time inside prison is the easy part

My old walking partner called the other day to let me know he recently joined the ranks of ex-convicts. We congratulated one another for finally being able to talk on the phone without Big Brother listening in -- or so we assume, anyway -- and kicked the bobo around for a while. We talked about old times and old friends, and tried to come up with the names of characters who, blessedly, have been forgettable.

When we got around to comparing notes and circumstances, it didn't take him long to observe that his present life -- which consists of getting up, going to work, coming home, reading a little and watching TV, getting up, going to work, coming home, etc. -- was not so very different from the lives we lived in the joint. That's with the exception of sex, much better food and the occasional libation, of course.

There is no denying that he has a point. The quotidian details of the life of a citizen, for lack of a better term, are tedious to the point of being mind-numbing. I have really got to hand it to anybody who can handle doing time on the street like this year after year with maybe a two-week vacation in the summer.

Is it any wonder that this town goes so gaga over the vicarious excitement of football season every year? You don't have to tax your imagination to figure out why doctors hand out something like 60 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year. It's amazing that more people don't end up in the psych ward. Say what you will about a career in crime -- and there are many negative things that could be said about it both morally and practically: At least it's not usually real boring.

OK, I'll be the first to admit that I've gotten a little carried away. The road to prison might involve a white-knuckle ride, but upon arrival, things slow down considerably. The reason I've been flogging this horse for three paragraphs is to make a point about the national recidivism rate, reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to be around 67 percent. Two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years, while just over half return to prison. I'm a "two-time loser" myself.

Conventional wisdom has it that people end up in prison because they are lazy or stupid or just plain evil. While there is a certain amount of that, I propose that a large number of prisoners are there because they could not face the prospect of doing life-without-parole in a cubicle like Dilbert, or on an assembly line watching widgets go by.

I don't know if it's from watching too many movies or what, but a lot of criminals suffer from the delusion that life is going to be interesting and exciting, maybe even thrilling. When this expectation isn't met, many feel cheated -- to the extent that they take things into their own hands.

All of this would seem to present an opportunity for the people who run prisons to make a dent in the aforementioned recidivism rate. Most prisons still make some attempt at rehabilitation. At some time during their bits, most convicts are extorted into participating in vocational-training programs and pre-release programs. Given the modest success record of these programs, perhaps it is time for prison functionaries to recognize exactly whom they are dealing with -- and to modify the programs to fit the convicts, instead of trying to bend the convict to match the program.

It is time to realize that teaching guys who lack the patience to sit at a desk all day to run Word or PowerPoint is mostly a waste of time. Why not offer training for jobs with more of an edge? A lot of convicts I've met aren't suited for anything except being convicts; even the Army, strapped as it is, won't take ex-cons. But I bet the prisons are full of potential fire jumpers, steeplejacks, underwater welders and maybe even some floor-traders.

It's worth a try, because what we're doing with prisoners now obviously isn't working.

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