Short of revamping the entire system, here are some changes I would make to the current system:
- Age segregation. Currently corrections starts sending prisoners to adult facilities at age 17 or 18. In addition to teens and older adults, I would like a third category for young adults. A 20-year-old on his first incarceration should not be housed with 50-year-olds who have done dozens of sentences; it is educational in the wrong way. The old guys would like this, too—they’re always complaining about the young hooligans running around being noisy, youth who “don’t know how to conduct theyselves as a convict.”
- Additional food. My jail gives the same meal tray (around 2,500 calories) to every inmate, from the 6’4″ young man who works out all day to the 5’1″ grandmother who watches TV all day. The women become fat and the men struggle to maintain their muscle. If inmates have spending money, they can buy snacks (mostly junk food) from commissary. But if they have no spending money or are in a unit where they’re not allowed to buy commissary, the men get hungry. When clients complain of boredom in segregation, I encourage them to exercise, but many of them say they get too hungry if they exercise. Trying to figure out how to give people extra food without creating weird incentives is difficult. Something nutritious but bland (perhaps not as bad as nutraloaf) seems like a good compromise.
- More nutritious food. There’s some evidence that providing prisoners with vitamin and omega-3 supplements reduces violence (presumably by helping their brains function better?) Vitamin D deficiency is rampant, particularly among dark-skinned inmates, because they get so little access to sunlight.
- Cheaper phone calls (though this is better than it was.) Many children aren’t able or allowed to visit their parents in jail, since parents often “don’t want them to see me like this.” The ability to talk on the phone is crucial to maintaining some relationship with an incarcerated parent.
- Housing for mothers and newborns. Separating mothers from their babies immediately after birth is cruel to the mother and unhealthy for the baby, since it makes it impossible to do even the first few days of breastfeeding. I recognize that most facilities aren’t set up for this, but new mothers should have the option to transfer to a facility that is.
- The ability to send home prescriptions. My experience at a psychiatric hospital is that doctors could send 30-day prescriptions home with patients who were leaving, so that when it was impossible to find a quick psychiatry appointment outside they wouldn’t be screwed. At the jail where I work, you get whatever happens to be left on your medication card (anything from 3 to 30-some pills), which probably isn’t enough to last until you can see a prescriber. So you go off your psych meds a few days after leaving jail, when you’re in the throes of trying to find a place to live and a source of income. It’s a recipe for disaster.
- Providing every inmate with the option to get free long-term birth control before release. I don’t think sterilization would be a good idea, but reversible options like IUDs, Depo-Provera, or eventually intra vans devices would be great. Again, the time after release is chaotic, and people are not super likely to make it to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy before reuniting with loved ones/random strangers.
- TV programming chosen to be educational and calming. One of my clients said she preferred to watch the Nature Channel to “calm down instead of watching Maury, people talking about they baby daddies.” Another client, originally from Southeast Asia, tried to watch TV with the others but found the programming too frightening.
I’d like to see some combination of educational programming, emotional literacy material, documentaries, and nature footage with white noise (ocean waves or similar). I would particularly like to air documentaries about Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, who I think are stellar examples of how to use your time in prison well. A few hours of sports and news programming each day would be fine, since I think those help inmates feel connected to the larger world. From Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books:
The most popular genre among male inmates was nature documentaries about carnivorous animals. . . . even from the other side of the library, I’d know the lioness had finally pounced when I’d hear inmates yelling at the screen, “Get ’em! Get ’em!” Once, and only once, I heard an inmate take the gazelle’s side and cry out, “Run! Run!”