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This political scientist spent a year in prison. Here’s what he learned.

- October 29, 2015
Barbed wire at Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, Md. (Photo by Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post.) (Whitney Shefte/WASHINGTON POST)

On Oct. 1, a bipartisan group of senators introduced an omnibus bill that aims to yank our criminal justice system out of the “tough on crime” era that slammed shut the doors on a generation of offenders. Hailed by some, the federal “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” would do all this and more: reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes, retroactively get rid of the differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, seal and expunge more juvenile records, limit solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, offer compassionate release for elderly prisoners, and reduce sentences if a prisoner gets involved in programs that have in the past reduced recidivism.

The senators modeled their reforms on what some states have shown to reduce recidivism, eased reentry and saved money.

I have looked at this subject from more angles than most. I’ve been a state senator. I’ve been a federal prisoner. I’m now a public policy professor with a new book on the subject.

And like others, I’ve concluded that U.S. prisons create better criminals, not better people – which is very costly not just to those who will be re-incarcerated, but to taxpayers, to all of us with whom former prisoners will live when they are released, and to anyone concerned with public safety.

The bill that aims to incrementally reform sentencing is a good first step toward reintegrating former prisoners into society. But to have lasting impact, we must transform prison culture itself.

What do studies of recidivism say?

The main reason people re-offend is financial struggle. Most ex-offenders are unemployed because they didn’t go far in school, they can’t show much in the way of a work history, and they were convicted of crimes before. But seeking legitimate work can seem laughable when most employers won’t hire ex-prisoners.

Here’s one approach to getting them jobs: prison education, which will help them succeed in a tightening labor market.

And succeed they should. The natural ingenuity of prisoners – especially those who once managed successful (illicit) businesses – suggests that education to become entrepreneurs in legitimate industries would be ideal. Indeed, I witnessed extraordinary entrepreneurial efforts while I was behind bars.

What are prison hustles, and what do they suggest? 

Conventional wisdom is that prisoners have it made – “three hots and a cot” – but the reality is more complex. At the federal prison in Manchester, Ky., we received a monthly allowance: a week’s worth of toothpaste and a thin bar of cheap soap about the size of a credit card. If you wanted anything else to improve your hygiene while living virtually on top of hundreds of other sweaty men, you had to fend for yourself.

[Phone calls won’t cost up to $14/minute any more but here’s how prisoners’ families are still being fleeced]

That’s not counting what we might want to spend on paper, pens or stamps, money for phone calls to loved ones (often more than $1/minute, thanks to greedy prison phone companies and commission-hungry wardens). My $5.25 a month for full-time work on the warehouse loading dock didn’t go far. I had savings to cushion me. Few had that luxury.

Since the wages we earned from prison jobs were scarcely enough to survive, hustling was the only option available for most. “Dred” was one of my many fellow prisoners whose hustle showed real entrepreneurial ingenuity. From the cell next door, he ran a bustling Jamaican eatery, serving delicious meals cooked with ingredients pilfered (sometimes by me) from the prison’s warehouse. He sold meals for stamps, mackerel, cigarettes, or occasionally, pornography, and analyzed the relative profitability of meals based on the price he paid for ingredients — no mean feat given the number of currencies in which he traded.

Prison was teeming with ambitious men like Dred who wanted to fly straight, and there probably wasn’t a single concept taught at the Wharton School that he didn’t grasp. Yet there were no mechanisms to help men translate their intuitive grasp of business into legitimate enterprises. Decent prison educational programs are rare, and the 2008-2009 recession accelerated a decades-long austerity trend, as legislators cut “non-essential” prison services like vocational training.

How can we leverage prisoners’ innate talents?

Upon their release, 650,000 people annually land on America’s doorsteps to try to succeed in communities where they once failed — now with the added baggage of prison records. Nearly three-quarters will re-offend. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, given a penal system that has long stressed punishment over rehabilitation.

Expanding some existing programs could change this. For instance, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) links prisoners to mentors who guide them through an intensive, seven-month MBA-level course. Prisoners build pro forma income statements, perform market research and craft full-length business plans. As their final exam, they pitch visiting potential investors. PEP’s 10-year recidivism rate is 6 percent. Several PEP startups book a million dollars in annual revenue.

[Can therapy keep young men out of crime–and prison?]

Even for prisoners lacking entrepreneurial aptitude, education makes a significant difference. A recent RAND meta-study found that prison educational program participants were far less likely to re-offend than nonparticipants, resulting in a 43 percent recidivism reduction – 85,000 fewer offenders annually, if extrapolated nationally. RAND’s findings also suggest that prison education is cost-effective: while education costs average $1,572 per inmate, reincarceration costs average $9,250 less for each prisoner who received education than for those who did not — a 6-to-1 net benefit. Other studies found similar efficiencies.

What does the current political/policy terrain look like?

An array of groups across the ideological spectrum have begun to be effective in challenging mass incarceration. Without the prospect of another election, President Obama has shown interest in reform – backing the recently-filed legislation, and issuing an executive order re-instituting Pell Grants grant for federal prisoners. Red-state senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have joined him, scrambling traditional party politics.

But given Washington gridlock, can meaningful change happen? Democrats’ most reliable voting block, African Americans, were until recently the most prominent voices on the issue. Many white Democrats had left them behind, however, assuming Bill Clinton’s “posture.” But Republicans have lately come forward. A quick analysis of the parties’ electoral coalitions helps explain why.

There are three main domestic policy wings to the modern Republican Party — fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and libertarians — and all have compelling reasons to support criminal justice reform. Budget hawks fret about $80 billion of incarceration-related expenditures annually. Religious conservatives see offenders’ potential for redemption and support more humane treatment of them. Libertarians chafe at intrusive surveillance and draconian drug laws that can incarcerate people for life after a third offense.

While Democrats decry the prison-industrial complex’s vast human toll, many actually helped build it. The Democratic Party spent much of the 1980s and ’90s struggling to shed its cartoonishly libertine 1960s image, leaving them to “outbid” Republicans to see who could be tougher on crime—especially crimes disproportionately committed by African Americans. More offenders meant more prisons. That empowered correctional officers’ unions, which would later help pass “Three Strikes” laws in more than two dozen other states, and who remain skeptical of reforms that would threaten their jobs en masse.

[If both Republicans and Democrats support sentencing reform, what stands in their way?]

The recent depoliticization of criminal justice makes reform more likely. Historically, when the parties are competing on the issue, more prisons get built. Take the region where incarceration boomed most: the South. Criminal justice issues were suppressed while conservative Democrats dominated Sunbelt states. But for the first time since the Civil War, the 1950s saw development of two-party competition with new ideological schisms. Republicans found success in affluent suburbs and later in rural areas. Liberal Democrats began supplanting old-line conservative Democrats.

Republicans like Richard Nixon emphasized wedge issues such as crime with an eye on Sunbelt voters and Electoral College hegemony. And so penal policy suffered “hyperpoliticization.”

Today the Republican Party has stopped pushing “tough on crime” policies. As a result, Democrats have little need to neutralize the issue. The new transpartisan reform coalitions lead many to predict a policy “window” that enables change.

Ambitious reformers seek to halve the prison population by 2025. It won’t be easy. Most of the 1.3 million people in state prisons committed violent crimes. Cutting in half the number of people in prison would require touching the “third rail” of penal reform by releasing not just the so-called non, non, nons — nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex-offender prisoners — but also some with histories of violence.

Reducing recidivism would require more spending on quality, rehabilitative prison education programming. And spending money on prisoners is never popular with taxpayers.

Even if high-level policy changes pass, can they be effectively implemented?

Some correctional officers (COs) taunted men who were preparing to go home, with lines like “See you in six months.” Most staff made their disdain for prisoners clear and their lack of interest in rehabilitation even clearer.

Upton Sinclair once observed that it is impossible to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it. Widespread prison education will only occur when COs no longer believe their job security depends on a continuous stream of prisoners. Prison culture can’t be transformed until society stops seeing prison as a warehouse for society’s throwaways and starts seeing it as a costly revolving door and massive waste of human potential. Scholars who have studied the influence “street level-bureaucrats” wield over policy implementation would certainly agree. A failure to transform our collective worldview essentially guarantees – just as the COs who once ruled my life sneeringly predicted – that most parolees will indeed return to prison soon.

Jeff Smith (@jeffsmithMO) is assistant professor of urban policy at The New School’s Milano School and author of “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis.” He spent a year in prison after pleading guilty to obstructing justice in a federal investigation in campaign financing.