Letters from the Executive Director

Elements of Successful Reentry Part 2: Inmates Are People

By Cleveland Bell, Riverside House CEO

As we continue to talk about the four elements of successful reentry as part of the larger process of restorative justice, it’s important to understand why we need to think about and treat offenders like PEOPLE, not just inmates.

Last time, I shared some of my story about why it’s so important for reentry to start early, and thinking about inmates as people should start early as well. We have to learn how to begin to treat offenders like people from the very beginning of their incarceration. If they are never treated as anything less, there’s no huge adjustment they have to make when it’s time to re-enter society.

One thing to know about our country today is that when we prosecute someone, we prosecute as though they have committed a crime against the state, not against a person. I think that’s where the problem may start. Crimes are committed against people, and that’s how the process and the person should be treated.

Typically, we call offenders “convicts” or “inmates,” but the most current buzz word is “returned citizens,” which is discussed more in this Shared Justice article.

“Changing our language is a small step we can take that can help us to think and act in new, redemptive ways. For men and women leaving prison and integrating back into society, the language used to describe them can oftentimes perpetuate harmful stigmas and make their transition even more difficult,” according to the article.

The idea is good, but oftentimes names change while attitudes stay the same. I’m not sure the attitude has changed here. Not yet, anyway.

When I was working in work release and doing all the things I did for reentry, I really felt like I was a person, not an inmate. I felt like I was a contributor. I was able to give and receive and interact with others. The officer in charge treated me like an employee, not like an inmate. This helped prepare me for the jobs I would have after incarceration.

If we can begin to get all officers, prison officials, members of the justice system and the general public into a frame of mind to realize that these are people, it will have a big impact on them while in prison and after.

One example, although somewhat unusual, is a prison on an island in Bastoy, Norway. The prisoners here are not only treated like human beings, they are treated like adults with responsibilities, jobs and daily tasks that help keep the prison running. The result? Norway has the lowest re-offending rate in Scandinavia. Two years after release, only 20% of prisoners have been re-convicted. A study of 29 American states found a recidivism rate that was nearly twice as high.

This type of prison in Norway may not be feasible in most places, but there are ideas here that could be applied to these young people with earrings, blue hair, and 15 tattoos. They are human beings. They have parents. It may sound harsh, but someone wanted them to be here, and someone loves them still. In many ways, they are just like the rest of us.

Of course, the offenders have to see themselves as people too, and this may be the most important part. If they can see themselves as people, it will go a long way with others. A lot starts in our heads and our hearts and how we look at things.

But if we can all, including the offenders, see inmates as more than just their incarceration, more than the time they have to spend in jail, and more than who they are while in prison, it will make the reentry process much easier and set them up for more success.

Another aspect that we think is extremely important at Riverside House is following up with people who have been released from prison, which we will discuss more next week.


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