Lecture presses need for prison reform
Margaret Hynds | Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Martin F. Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, delivered the fourth annual Human Dignity Lecture sponsored by the Institute for Church Life on Wednesday.
Horn’s lecture, entitled “Prison Reform: Problematic Necessity,” explored the evolution of the modern prison system, the effects of prison on both prisoners and regular citizens and his opinions on how the American prison system could be improved.
“I have visited and worked in many prisons throughout my career and have come to the conclusion that the prison, by its very nature, is a flawed institution, destructive of human dignity,” Horn said.
“I would like to share with you some of my personal experiences and observations gained over a career of 40 years working with the imprisoned, the about-to-be-imprisoned and persons released from prison,” Horn said.
“Imprisonment is the public imposition of involuntary physical confinement, treating lawbreakers in ways that would be legally and morally wrong to treat those who have not broken the law,” he said. “It is punishment carried out by the state in our name. And because it is, each of us should be concerned with how it is accomplished.”
Horn discussed a report released by a committee of national research chaired by John Jay College President Jeremy Travis entitled “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.” The report challenges the United States to reconsider a justice system based that has flooded prisons.
“How should we respond to the mass incarceration of over two million people in our country?” Horn asked.
Horn said the answer to this question requires a close look at prison populations.
“Prisoners in every jurisdiction come from just a small number of communities, mostly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods with the least resources and the most problems of health, housing and nutrition,” he said.
“One cannot divorce the discussion of imprisonment from the discussion of race in our country. As a result of federal census rules and federal funding schemes, we redirect money away from communities in need to prison communities, and through discriminatory voting laws, diminish the electoral power of the most poor and disenfranchised communities.”
According to Horn, however, race and socioeconomic status are just two of several issues that need be discussed.
“As a civilized society, how can we explain the fact that by some estimates, over 30 percent of the persons in prisons are persons with mental illness?” he said. “How can we allow that? […] Prisons and jails are the wrong places for our mentally ill.”
Horn said the American penal system has been inundated with the largest number of inmates in its history, and prisons have not been able to accommodate such a large population. For example, dormitory-style barracks have replaced traditional cells, leading to increased violence, difficulties controlling prison populations and challenges rehabilitating prisoners.
Many prisoners are released without the tools to stay out of prison, Horn said.
“When a man or woman leaves prison, they need three things to succeed,” Horn said. “They must remain sober; they need a place to live, and they need a job. And they need all three simultaneously.
“Typically parole agencies don’t invest in providing resources to assist their charges to stay sober. … They don’t invest money in helping people on parole find and keep work. … They don’t provide any assistance in finding a place to live. Why, then, should we be surprised when [the prisoners] are returned to prison?”
Because of this, Horn said prisons serve society but with a heavy cost to inmates.
“Prison and punishment have important normative functions, but at a price,” he said.
Horn ended his lecture by offering suggestions on how to improve American prisons, including encouraging transparency, mental health care reform, eradicating drug use from prisons and a larger focus on rehabilitation in prisons and jails.
“Prisons should be places where prisoners learn that respect for the law and for others is how people in civil society behave,” Horn said. “This means that the staff must respect the law and each other as well as their charges. We must build within our prisons a culture of integrity. The goal of prisons should be to release better citizens, not better criminals.”