By Francis Koster Ed. D.
As I try to show how we can create a better America by imitating success stories already in place, my focus tends to be on the things that I call basic life support systems - things like safe air, clean water, pure food, clean and secure energy, healthy educated populations, and public safety.
Some factoids that may startle you: America has the highest rates of imprisonment of any of the advanced societies in the world, with one out of every 100 of our adult citizens behind bars at any one time. i This is a higher ratio than Russia, and China!
The numbers are even more startling when you add in the number of offenders who are parole or probation - which results in a jaw dropping total of 1 in 31 adults under some form of correctional supervision at any one time. ii
Across the United States, the average cost of maintaining a person behind bars is around $29,000 per year. iii Within state governments, operating the jail and prisons costs 1 out of every 15 tax dollars spent - and climbing.iv
Now consider this: unlike other countries, roughly 40% of people who spend time behind bars in the United States return there within 3 years v - often because once an "ex-con" they become unemployable - and their options to make a living are largely illegal. Whatever disregard for normal rules of behavior which led them to their first offense may still exist, but now they have the added burden of having limited ways to make an income.
If we imprison a large portion of our population, and as a consequence of their offense they become unemployable, we increase the risk of future crime, and the risk of higher taxes to pay for their repeat confinement. We need to break the cycle, or it will break us.
Only about half of the inmates are confined because of violent or sexual crimes, and these tend to have the highest rate of recidivism.vi The rest, with higher chances of staying clean, may be trainable in ways that benefit them, and the larger society. Remember - all prisoners except those with life sentences get out of jail, and are back in our neighborhoods - unemployable, and in many cases surrounded by the same circumstances that had them in trouble in the first place. If we face that fact squarely, we must ask the question "what could we do to lower the recidivism rate of prisoners?" Fortunately, the answers are being discovered.
One of the emerging strategies is to train incarcerated people in a trade or skill which they can practice in an entrepreneurial way either self employed or in very small (often family owned) business, where they are well known, and have watchful family eyes on them.
In Florida, one successful program teaches inmates how to keep bees. Nineteen inmates were trained by a national expert in hive management. During their 6 week training program, over 600 pounds of honey were produced for use in the prison kitchen. The program is run in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which in this state which produces a significant part of the nations citrus crop and has much to worry about as the native bee population is declining. They report that graduating, soon to be released bee keepers have industry officials wanting to interview them for employment. The waiting list among the prisoners to get into the program is long - and growing.
To cite another example, in North Carolina, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte (CCSC) trains an annual average of 50 former prisoners, recovering drug addicts and other hard core unemployables, to be chefs and cooks with astonishing success.
As my colleague Jon Kennedy discovered while researching this subject, while most people with this kind of life history would usually have a difficult time finding work, CCSC graduates enjoy an 85% employment rate, and a 6 month job retention rate of 86%. And during their training program they prepare 5000 meals for other social service programs each week!
Since June of 1998, CCSC has graduated over 640 people and has an 85 percent placement rate. Graduates have been placed in local restaurants, country clubs, retirement centers and institutional food establishments.
Compared to the cost of keeping a person behind bars, the cost of such training is quite small - and the fiscal conservatives among us will delight in the rate of financial return.
Our nation is facing many challenges - including little discussed problems like declining bee populations to pollinate our crops, and prisoners who commit repeat offenses. But, with bureaucratic and social courage, facing the facts squarely, and selecting the right inmates, we can spread a little honey around, while lowering our taxes, and making our society safer.
i New York Times, 2/28/2008, reporting on, and quoting from, the Pew Center Public Safety Performance Project
ii Pew Trust press release "1 in 31 U.S. Adults are Behind Bars, on Parole, or Probation." 03/02/2009, contact Jessica Riordan 215-575-4886
iii Ibid, page 2
iv ibid page 2
vi Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, by Doris J. James July 18, 2004