In the first week of January 2013, at the federal prison in which I live, a couple dozen guards and other staff members — teachers, mostly — stomped into my housing unit and appeared intent on doing a vigorous “shakedown” of our cells and the common areas.  There were no guns or drug-sniffing dogs, but they did lug along a big toolbox on wheels, menacing and mysterious.  Serious business.

Not too long ago, media outlets reported that two men serving long sentences escaped from a federal detention center in Chicago: Metropolitan Correctional Center Chicago.  It was by all accounts a clever, daring escape, the kind Hollywood loves; they chipped out the bars of their cell, rappelling fifteen stories down the side of the high-rise building on a bed-sheet rope.  (That took some stones: you have to figure it was on their minds that if they did fall to their deaths, at least they’d die free men, right?)  They even made it out through a five inch window and used fake bars as a decoy.  They apparently had outside help, because a surveillance video showed them slipping out of bright orange jumpsuits and into light-colored civilian clothes.  In a humorous touch, they were reported to have hopped in a taxi and were whisked away to freedom.  The FBI was offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to their capture.

Here at the Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg, Virginia, the big shakedown quickly degenerated into a fifteen minute stand-around session in the common area of the housing unit.  A handful of guards engaged in a perfunctory search of a few cells.  The majority of the time the guards in the unit were arguing about where to put inmates whose cells were being searched.  They couldn’t figure out if the inmates should stand in the common room area or be placed in a TV room.  After a lieutenant got involved, the common room was selected.  The search stumbled on.  Not surprisingly, it looked like they might have grabbed an extra sheet or two.  And that was it.

This is not to say that the guards don’t know how to tear up a housing unit — they do.  In fact, federal prison guards are known for destroying inmate’s property and leaving rooms in total disarray.  Give them a real reason to do it — to rid a compound of weapons, for example — and they’ll do a thorough job.  But such enthusiasm is never applied in a situation like this one, which probably arose from an order at the Bureau of Prisons’ Central Office in Washington, DC.  “Shake ’em all down!”  A nationwide search of the BOP’s 100 plus prisons in “response” to the escape — to let everyone know that they’re doing {something} about it.

While it may sound cynical, the perfunctory response to the escape is typical of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and of the American correctional system in general.  At least in the last couple of decades, the model seems to be “Just make it look like we’re doing something that matters.”  In actuality, this is rarely the case.

By all measures our correctional system is a disaster, a dismal failure.  As prison populations rise to unprecedented levels (the Institute for Higher Education Policy places the number at 2.3 million persons in prisons and jails, which makes the United States the world’s top incarcerator of citizens), more and more each year, recidivism rates don’t improve.  According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 51.8% of released prisoners will recidivate within 3 years of release.  Best estimates say that up to 94% of ex-prisoners will be arrested again, and between 67.8% and 81% will find themselves incarcerated again within five years of release.  All of this would not be a problem were it not for the fact that roughly 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  As reported by the U.S. Department of Education, around 700,000 prisoners are released from incarceration each year.  These numbers are simply astounding.

The New York Times places the number of state and federal prisoners at 1.5 million and the number of those in American jails at 748,000.  According to the Times, there are 840,000 adults on parole and 4 million adults on supervised probation.

The numbers become even more alarming when ratios are taken into account.  The Pew Center on the States boldly proclaims that 1 in every 100 American adults is currently in prison or jail and 1 in every 31 American adults is under some form of judicial supervision (prison, parole, probation, etc.).  America, with only 5% of the world’s population, incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.

The cost of America being the Incarcerator in Chief is astounding.  The Pew Center on the States reports, “Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent,” and “State spending on corrections quadrupled” in the last two decades alone.  The publication Black Issues in Higher Education boldly advises that $30.1 billion is spent each year on new prison construction and their operation.  Even the National Association of State Budget Officers throws their hat in the ring by stating that total state (non-federal) spending on corrections reaches about $52 billion annually.

Absurdly, the response to these staggering numbers has been periodic rollouts of new, creative means of supervising the recently released that simply provide more reasons to revoke parole and probation terms: intensive supervision; teams of supervisors; GPS ankle bracelets; curfews, banishments from neighborhoods; the list goes on.

None of it works.  This has been proven.  In fact, according to the Pew Center on the States, the majority of prisoners that recidivate do so through the vehicle of technical supervision violations, not the commission of new crimes.  These include failing a drug test, not abiding by a curfew, or even missing a meeting with a probation or parole officer.  No one suggests that rules should be simply discarded in an effort to reduce recidivism rates, but sanctions appropriate to the rule violations need to be the benchmark.

What has been shown to work — universally — is educating prisoners while they are still {inside} prison, not necessarily after their release from incarceration.  Virtually every study conducted on the subject of correctional education demonstrates — without doubt — that recidivism rates drop in direct correlation to the amount of education a given prisoner has under his or her belt when set free.  According the Journal of Correctional Education, the numbers are stark:

~For prisoners who attain an AA degree: 13.7% recidivism;

~For prisoners who attain a Bachelor’s degree: 5.6% recidivism;

~For prisoners who attain a Master’s degree: 0% recidivism!

Much like the post-escape shakedown, though, it seems as if our political leaders are just paying occasional lip service to a national problem, by making occasional pokes at low-cost, low political risk programs.  For example, the Second Chance Act of 2007, which, among other things, increased the allowable time federal prisoners can be placed in pre-release housing from 6 months to a possible year, to allow for job training and further community-based education and rehabilitation, has essentially died from a lack of funding.  Oh, prisoners can still theoretically obtain a year of halfway house placement, but there are no funds for extra programming.  This is the fiscal equivalent of a post-escape shakedown for sheets.  (Note that FCI Petersburg is surrounded by several fences topped with razor wire on all sides.  Thus, even if an inmate managed to climb out their window (an almost impossible endeavor considering a steel beam dividing the window in two), they would still have to contend with multiple reinforced security fences, motion alarms, and two patrol vehicles with armed guards in them.)

Educating prisoners is simple: it costs a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars a year to educate a prisoner ($2,000 to $3,782 for a college-level education according to the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research).  In years past, Pell Grants paid for such programs, but those days are long gone because of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994, which restricted inmates from receiving federal student aid.  The tough-on-crime proponents thought it was wrong to pay for prisoner education.  So, now, with more prisoners than military personnel, our country buckles under the weight of the cost of our criminal justice system, with no solace in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps now is the time for our leaders to step up to the plate and actually do something real about our recidivism problem.  The present model of pretending to do so has failed.  Much like a shakedown for sheets in a prison 1,000 miles from where two men escaped the day before.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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