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Editorial: Another path toward inmate rehabilitation

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley called the possible repeal of the death penalty a “vote of conscience.”

A more exact phrase is difficult to imagine.

It is harder still to imagine conscience being absent in the consideration of any aspect of the criminal justice system, especially the rehabilitation of the men and women whom society at large prefers to be out of sight and out of mind.

Bill James, who is best known for helping the Boston Red Sox play their own version of Moneyball, wrote a book not long ago called Popular Crime in which he offered an interesting, if unrealistic, vision of an ideal prison system. The essence of his argument is that if one looks at prisons as places for inmate rehabilitation, large ones make no sense. He uses the word “violentocracy” to describe the way the most violent offenders work to gain control of the prison, which forces other inmates to spend the majority of their time behind bars trying to establish themselves in this frightening environment.

His solution is “a law, applying to every state, every county, every level of government, that no incarceration facility may be used to house more than 24 persons at a time.”

Under this system, prisons would exist on 10 levels, with level one prisons housing the most violent offenders and level 10 prisons serving as halfway houses.

James wants you to think of these levels as rungs on a ladder stretching toward re-entry into society. By increasing access to family and friends, books, television, job training, etc., at each level, thus creating incentives for prisoners to move up in the system, James believes the desire to climb higher will be overpowering and life-changing.

There are approximately 2,800 inmates in New Hampshire correctional facilities. For James, that means that in an ideal world there would be at least 117 small prisons in the state. Now think about how difficult it is to get one prison built. James’s plan is never going to happen here or anywhere else. Not a chance.

But there’s something else to consider within this quixotic push for reform. Beyond the unrealistic bricks and mortar aspect of the plan is the question of individual responsibility to imprisoned men and women.

James writes: “Many, many, many people are very willing to go into a prison, and try to help the people who are there make a better life. I am entirely willing to go into a prison and teach a class, and my wife is, and my brother-in-law is. Ministers are almost universally willing to minister to prisoners; many psychologists are willing to donate time to counsel those in need of help. The problem is that’s extremely difficult to arrange if you have a large, hostile prison.”

It’s not so difficult, however, to arrange here in New Hampshire.

The web address is nh.gov/public_ volunteers.html. You will find a Citizen Involvement Application, an Activity Proposal Form, and a phone number and email address for a volunteer coordinator.

To support the repeal of the death penalty is to assign value to the lives of New Hampshire’s worst criminals. The question is whether that value extends to an inmate’s quality of life.

Most inmates release into society. I was one, in a federal facility. While there I tutored others who earned their GED. Without the efforts of two c-tutors during that time and our supervisor, precious little would have been done to make better citizens of those there. Popular sentiment is for nothing to be done. No comforts, no education, nothing. That's short-sighted, and the recidivism rate reflects it. There's a duty on the part of each inmate to do better. Society also has a duty to better, one too often pushed aside, whether in the criminal justice system or on a larger scale, for those in our society who are most vulnerable and in need. We can't even bother to extend health care to everyone.

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