Looking Back: Some Ideas on Prison Reform

Jeffrey Deskovic speaking in Davis last year at the Annual Vanguard Event

By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

As readers are well aware, I served 16 years in prison before I was proven innocent. That experience, horrific as it was, gave me an in-depth and intimate understanding of the prison system. As such, having both witnessed and experienced many things as well as reflected upon the senselessness of many things, I naturally have some ideas on prison reform.

Prisons need not be the inhumane horror houses that they are, where abuse, lack of human and civil rights, and violence are everyday realities. If people are abused in many different ways on a regular basis for years, how do we expect such people to turn out?

It goes without saying that such an environment is counter-productive and not conducive to rehabilitation. There are a variety of reforms that are needed in order to make our prisons more humane and therefore more conducive to rehabilitation. Although by no means an exhaustive list, this article contains a few thoughts on the subject.

It is well known that maintaining contact with friends and family is important to inmates because it has been linked with rehabilitation and making a successful transition back into society. Therefore, to the extent possible, prisoners who are from the city should be housed in facilities near the city, and those who are from upstate New York should be housed in facilities upstate, as close to their home town as possible, rather than the current practice of housing prisoners far from their hometowns while making them earn a transfer closer to home.

I would further point out that some prisoners go through most of their sentences, and in some instances, their entire prison term, never getting transferred close to home. That situation needs to be changed. By making proximity to one’s family and friends an element of reward, the Department of Corrections ultimately punishes society, much more than the prisoner, by having the former prisoner returned to society far less rehabilitated.

As anyone who has visited a prisoner knows, the Correction Officers often take a long time processing visitors, ranging from 45 minutes to several hours. There is a very simple form that visitors need to fill out. There is no reason why the guards can’t process visitors as quickly as possible.

Similarly, it is not unusual that once a visitor has been processed that it takes several hours before the prisoner arrives in the visiting room. Often the reason is that the prisoner has not been told promptly. These aspects have the cumulative effect of discouraging visitors from returning. As mentioned above, beyond this harming the prisoner and the visitor, society is harmed as well.

Often after visits, although not exclusively, prisoners are strip-searched, in order to check for illegal items, drugs, or weapons. This procedure involves not just disrobing, but also bending over and spreading one’s buttocks. The goal of checking for illegal items could be accomplished while also maintaining human dignity by utilizing an x-ray machine similar to the one utilized at airports.

Shifting gears, prison food is notorious for not being prepared correctly and barely being edible. For example, at times fish squares were still partially frozen, pasta and sauce were sometimes cooked together in one big pot completely drying out the sauce. Pizza that is severely burned has been served, and leftovers were often served three times in the course of one week. There should be more oversight to ensure that food is prepared correctly. Inmates do not need to be punished with bad food.

Additionally, the directive that instructs that prisoners who have broken a facility rule and who have been restricted to their cells as punishment should be served smaller portions, should be changed for the same reason. I would also like to point out that prisoners on such status are more vulnerable because they can’t purchase certain limited food items at the commissary.

As a separate but related issue, the proceedings within prisons for adjudicating whether a prisoner is guilty or innocent of having broken a rule is generally rigged, and I have personally witnessed situations in which officers have lied in their reports.

When correction officers conduct cell searches, it is easy to tell if the search has been conducted by abusive guards or those who conduct themselves professionally. The abusive ones often leave the cell a mess, with photos, clothing items, books, etc. left in such disarray on the floor, or even on the bed, that it requires hours to put everything back together. There is no reason why things could not be put back as they were before, as the non-abusive guards leave it. I believe that a cell search should be videotaped, beginning with how the cell looked just before the search was commenced.

Often the price of hygienic items, stationery materials for keeping in contact with the outside world, and limited food items are raised due to inflation while the prisoner pay grades remain the same, at 22¢, 25¢, 32¢, 38¢ an hour, with a few limited slots of 42¢, and even fewer 48¢ slots, thus rendering the prisoners less and less able to afford things. Considering that the commissary is supplied with food items from an outside vendor by contract, the contract should place limitations on the raising of prices.

There should be an inquiry made into which guards are abusive, and also which literally look the other way when violence is occurring so as to avoid having to break things up and having to do paperwork afterwards. Such correction officers should be disciplined or, if necessary, removed.

Turning to another vital subject, prison health care is notoriously bad. It often takes between a week to several months to see a doctor. Nurses frequently dispense Tylenol as the answer to virtually every problem. It is not unusual for serious health conditions to worsen, and sometimes result in death. Health care workers who work in the prison who don’t follow the Hippocratic Oath and don’t properly care for and treat their patients should be removed.

The influence of God and religion inside prisons, through the practice of various religions has, to some extent, lowered violence among its practitioners, and provide some measure of comfort. Those who practice Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, are generally given the opportunity to attend religious services in the prison as well as to attend classes to learn more about their faith. However, most often those who practice other faiths, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Indian faith traditions, and other forms of faith, are not given religious services or classes. I believe that prisoners should be equally treated and allowed both services and classes in simple fairness, as well as in the interests of rehabilitation.

Shawangunk Prison, where I was incarcerated for a year and a half, had cameras all over the facility. That fact had the impact of reducing violence to negligible levels because prisoners knew that they would almost certainly get caught. To my way of thinking, cameras should be installed similarly in every prison.

When prisoners are placed in what the movie industry typically calls “the hole,” regulations require that mental health workers periodically make their rounds to check on them. This is important given the fact that prisoners under such conditions are kept in their cells 23 hours a day, and often refuse the one hour recreation because they don’t want to go to recreation in handcuffs. The problem is that instead of according confidentiality, such as by having the workers conduct interviews in a room, the counselors instead talk to prisoners through the cell bars, so that everyone who is on the unit can overhear everything that is said.

In the state of Indiana, if prisoners complete their GED, they are eligible to apply to courts for a time reduction from their sentence. This serves as incentive and motivation for prisoners to take education seriously. I think we should consider instituting such a measure in New York. As I see it, rehabilitation needs to be encouraged, rather than being something that is accomplished despite prison.

I believe that such programs offering incentives for good behavior and completion of various educational levels should be expanded.

There is a population within prison that has mental health issues, such that they really belong in a mental hospital rather than prison. I remember people who used to talk to themselves, others who were delusional, and still others who obviously had the mentality of a child. Often those who had such conditions and ailments would get worse over the years, rather than better. Sometimes the goal of dispensing medication was not so much the treatment of a sick prisoner, but the smoother running of the prison. Unfortunately, that population was also more vulnerable to abuse by other prisoners.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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