Don’t paint all inmates with one brush

  • Tue Jan 5th, 2010 9:08pm

By Dirk Van Velzen, Timothy Pauley, Charles Ewing, William Meredith, Uimaiama Lausiva and Darrin Mounts

Margaret Mead reminded us that only a small group of committed people can change the world.

Indeed she was correct: Glaring, disturbing examples abound from 9/11 to Maurice Clemmons. Most of us in Washington, including virtually all prisoners, are aware of the tragedy that claimed the lives of Lakewood Police Officer Tina Griswold, Sgt. Mark Renninger, Officer Greg Richards and Officer Ronald Owens. As inmates at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC), we can only empathize with the anguish felt by everyone.

An item we saw on the news, implying that all inmates are like Maurice Clemmons — who gunned the Lakewood Police officers — articulated that all inmates thus be stripped of all the fun things they receive while in prison: education, medical attention and entertainment, to name a few. Therefore, occupying an oft-ignored segment of the population, we feel compelled to present another side to the dialogue: The perspective of the convicted felon.

There is a substantial difference between the average inmate, and the severely disturbed, seemingly psychopathic, individual who chose to murder four human beings. Clemmons was, in the truest sense of the word, an outlier: He was something situated away from the norm. As Bill Gates, Michael Phelps and Barack Obama are outliers in a positive direction, Gary Ridgeway, Charles Manson and Maurice Clemmons are all outliers in a negative sense.

But we are specifically objecting to the notion that stripping inmates of an education is a wise choice. This sentiment earlier was manifested in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Inmates were subsequently barred from receiving federal Pell grants. The result of eliminating this source of funding was the shuttering of prison college programs all over the United States. Where inmates once could develop the skills needed in the labor market post-release, they are now left to their own devices.

If inmates never left prison, this would be of no consequence. However, 93 percent of all prison inmates are eventually released, and 44 percent of those housed in state prisons are expected to be released within the year. As a result of the Pell grant preclusion, many released ex-offenders remain largely uneducated, unskilled and without the tools valued in employment. And the inability to develop in the post-release labor market has profound effects.

We all understand the desire to make our communities more inviting and safer places to live. Thus it is important to understand what a “tough on crime” approach entails. Stripping inmates of an education, unfortunately, is a “tough on criminal” approach. It involves utilizing a punishment mentality to make things miserable for those who have erred in life. If punishment produced better post-release outcomes, perhaps this would make sense; but research has shown that it does not, as our overflowing prison system demonstrates.

But what can be done? Numerous evidence-based studies quantify the value of correctional education, and we don’t have to look very far to find one. A meta-analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy suggests that every dollar spent on correctional education returns to society $11.09 in reduced victim costs, policing and criminal justice costs, and future prison construction and incarceration costs. Very simply, investing in correctional education saves taxpayers large amounts of money in avoided costs.

What we rarely hear about are the men and women released each year from prison who go about their lives as husbands, wives, sons, daughters. They paid their debt to society and then found a way to merge back into a normal, crime-free life when released. Success in these cases is an absence of newsworthiness and a separation from the criminal justice system. For every negative story, there are numerous positive stories that will never be told. Anonymity is their benchmark of success.

In closing, and speaking for a number of inmates here at MICC, our hearts go out to the families of Officer Griswold, Sgt. Renninger, Officer Richards and Officer Owens. And although we are limited in how we can make their situations better, we have been making a concerted effort to touch American communities as a whole, to make the world a better place. With a handful of proactive and conscientious inmates, we are taking strides forward to prepare ourselves, and our fellow inmates who one day will be reintegrated into the social fabric, with the tools needed to become positive and productive citizens. Who would you want today’s ex-offender … who would you want us to be?

The authors are inmates at McNeil Island Corrections Center. They also volunteer time to the Prison Scholar Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower incarcerated students to realize their post-secondary educational aspirations.