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Wednesday, June 7, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 149

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Reforming the prison system is a snap

R. Alex Whitlock

Next to the implementation of the death penalty, there is little that is more controversial in criminal justice systems in the United States as the state of our prisons. There are generally two points of view on the subject.

The first is that prison is a place for rehabilitation. Unless we rehabilitate inmates, we are just making their situation worse and making them more apt to commit crimes once they get out. And living a normal life is difficult with a criminal record and no job training.

The second point of view, which is much more prevalent in Texas, is that prison life should be as difficult as possible. Make it so they never want to go back. They shouldn't have it better on the inside than they ever did on the outside.

Both of these points of view carry serious merit. On one hand, you can't turn prisons into a human kennel, because even those that want to reform will have a very difficult time doing so with no contact to the outside world (no TV), a deteriorating body (no weight rooms), and no family to return to (no conjugal visits). On the other hand, there are those who will never reform. They have been bred in an environment that has facilitated criminal activities since before they could learn to speak.

We must distinguish those that have a chance for rehabilitation from those that do not. Furthermore, we must eliminate any advantages they have while in prison. So, we must give those who can grow room to do so, and take away any advantages inmates may abuse.

How can we distinguish between the two? How can we tell one person "you can be reformed" and tell another person that he is a lost cause? All you have to do is ask.

I don't mean going up to prisoners and asking, "Hey, if we give you cable, will you promise not to commit any more crimes?" What I do mean is letting them answer with actions. I say we should give the criminals the option. Let them make prison a rehabilitation center. How? The same way as on the outside -- by working for privileges.

Those who don't work get nothing. No TV. No conjugal visits. No recreation. Those who wish to play basketball or watch TV must work for those privileges.

Prisoners who work a certain number of hours per week get access to education. They get people to teach them to learn to read or a trade to use once they get out. Most importantly, they earn their education, thus silencing critics about people on the inside getting an education the outside wouldn't give them. You simply withhold benefits to encourage the prisoner to help himself.

While this may be oversimplified, I'm sure the details can be agreed upon and the money will make up for itself with less paroles being revoked. I'm sure many prisons are structured like this. Those that aren't should adopt a similar structure and those obstacles in the way need to be eliminated.

Perhaps this will never be done. After all, politicians lose an issue for every problem they solve.

Whitlock, a junior information systems technology major, 
can be reached at whitlock@eastmail.com.


 
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