What we can do about prisons

She hired the killing of her husband, admits she did so for molesting their daughter.  She regrets.   She owns responsibility for the pain she has inflicted on others.  She has served more than three decades of a seventy-five year sentence and has become a senior prisoner in one of our prisons.  And the prospects for parole remain distant.

This case raises questions.  The hired killer received a twenty-five year sentence and has been released.  But she remains behind bars.  If prisons are designed for the public safety, what danger does this elderly woman pose to us?  If our Department of Corrections is designed to work corrections or to achieve rehabilitation, what purpose is there in locking up this person who owns her responsibility, expresses regret, and poses little likelihood of killing another?  The answers may come with careful review.  But there is no agency in the state government that is asking these questions.  Her case is not subject to review.

The Illinois legislature is considering a bill (HB 3668) that focuses on the growing number of prisoners who are over fifty years old and have served more than twenty-five years.  This modest reform proposes the establishment of a procedure by which such inmates could petition for parole.  The bill is judiciously couched.  Victims would be notified of the petition and be given the opportunity to respond.  The review board might modify the sentence if it is satisfied that the prisoner presents no threat to the public safety.  Moreover, the board would be authorized to set conditions for release such as wearing an electronic monitoring device and doing public service.

This carefully considered legislation affects a small but growing population in our prisons.   One prisoner, for example, serves a life sentence without parole.  He killed while under the influence of PCP.    Although not a suspect, he was so overcome by guilt that he turned himself into the police.  He has served twenty-nine years and at age fifty-two is designated an elderly prisoner.   Again, no one in the state prison system is authorized to ask whether this person is a danger to us or whether he is fit to return to society.

By writing to our state lawmakers, each of us can help to work change so that these questions can be asked and the sentences of elderly prisoners can be reviewed.   This proposed legislation is a small but important step toward working change.  When we consider our prison system, for example the sentencing practices, we may feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.    That immensity may numb imaginations and cripple our ability to act.   We may ask: what can I with my limited time and resources do to work a change in this prison system.  Many of us may be concerned but are restrained by limited resources.  We might not be able to attend a rally in Springfield or lobby lawmakers in the state capital.   No matter such limitations, we can write our local lawmakers, talk to friends, or write out local newspapers.

Such actions are important not just because they will lead to passage of this modest piece of legislation but because they contribute to a growing movement calling for changes in the way we think about our prison system and how we will behave in the future.   The campaign to close the maximum security prisoner at Tamms illustrated the broader concern about our prisons.  Closing Tamms illustrated the effectiveness’ of concerned citizens.  We are also awakening to the need for “ban the box” legislation that eliminates the requirement that released prisoners when applying for a job check the box that they were convicted felons and thereby closes opportunity for successful re-entry into society.   Our fellow citizens are awakening to the need for revising sentencing procedures.  That Michele Alexander’s The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks testifies to the significance of this issue in our society.  (For more on HB3668 and work in Illinois on our prisons, go to Changing Minds Campaign at illinoisinstitute.net/index.html)

A conscience driven movement has arisen.

Within these several movements broader question emerge.  At stake is not only the prisoners without hope but our collective identity as a society.

While emphasizing the need for people to take responsibility for their actions, we have emphasized punishment—stern punishment.   But what has happened to the simple proposition that people can change, can become better?   While addressing the need for public safety, have we forgotten the possibility of reconciliation and restoration to society?  Have we allowed fear and the rhetoric of punishment to overcome us?  Are we making ourselves into a punishing society?  We are asking these questions in different ways.  In so doing we are looking to large changes in the culture.  This will take time.

We are asking that question in different ways.  Changing the way we think or returning to the proposition that the wrong doer can change will take time.  Supporting HB 3668 is a small step.  The bill can be passed.  And by taking action, no matter how small, each of contributes significantly to invigorating the larger movement for justice tempered by compassion.


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