Esrati on prisons

A Dayton cop once told me a story that they swear is true. A man walked into a mini-mart, pointed a gun at the cashier, said “this is a robbery, call the police.” The police arrived, he put the gun down, was put in the cruiser, where he said, “I’m having a heart attack take me to the hospital.” He had no health insurance, and needed expensive medical care- so jail was the solution.

It’s absolutely crazy that convicts can have guaranteed rights that the rest of us don’t- like health care.

Right now I know three people in prison. I don’t know how common that is, but, the reality is, the United States has more inmates per capita than any other industrialized country.

All three of my felon friends are more of a threat to themselves than to society, and this is a rising trend. Two were drunk and stupid, one was on parole and went on a crack binge. Of the three, one most definitely owes a debt to society since his drunk and reckless driving resulted in the death of one of his friends, but, the young man is going to have constant reminders of that one stupid night because of the toll it took on his body. Yes, he has a debt to repay, but is prison really the answer? Should he instead be sentenced to a lifetime of public service instead of 2 years in a cell with 3 squares and a cot?

When I was in the Army, they would still accept problem children as a diversion program. The judge would say, you’ve got a choice, prison or the Army, and the recruiters made their quota by hanging out at the courthouse. From what I hear, that’s no longer an option. The service won’t  take society’s cast-aways.

There are serious costs involved in keeping prisons full. Besides the health-care costs, it’s more expensive to send a kid to prison than it is to pay for college, and the long-term costs are even greater when former felons find the job market is considerably smaller for convicts.

Convicts also get released with additional obstacles. When whisked off to jail, you don’t get to cancel your cell phone contract, pay off credit cards, car loans, etc. So, re-establishing fundamental necessities can be overwhelming. Something as simple as car insurance is now a high-risk proposition, just because you haven’t carried insurance for the last couple of years. The deck is stacked against the newly free. I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is to get back on your feet, and this is part of the reason recidivism is also high.

There is a difference between prisons too. Some offer no counseling, training, education options while others, both within the same state, allow an inmate to achieve 99% of an associate’s degree, so that they are well prepared to make changes once released.

Other countries require a year to 18 months of service upon graduating from high school, either in the military or in a civilian public works program. The University of Dayton has integrated a very strong “service program” into its undergraduate program as a fundamental part of the education process. There is no doubt that programs like this can build a better citizen.

This country can’t continue to build prisons and create ex-cons who will forever be under-employed. It’s time that we introduce new programs to divert first-time offenders and create more cost-effective proactive programs to instill social skills and values into our future generations.

Along with a national year of service requirement, I would prefer to see public service programs developed where first-time, non-violent offenders work for the greater good as a way to pay their debt. These programs would be run along with alcohol and drug intervention programs, GED completion courses and trade apprenticeship programs.

Locking them up and throwing away the key is really just throwing away lives that could still be turned around. I’m looking forward to May when my favorite inmate gets out from his second 3-year term (he’ll be 31) and we can see the difference between doing time where he was shoveling pig manure the first 3, and getting an associate’s degree with a 3.98 GPA the second time.

We can’t afford to keep this revolving door in operation anymore.

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4 Comments on "Esrati on prisons"

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The overall tone of the post is spot on, but I must take exception to your charge that the Army won’t take people with criminal records.

I’ve seen plenty of articles and reports that talk about how the Army is reducing the requirements for the military and allowing felons to serve. Our forces are so stretched thin that they absolutely had to do this.

I don’t know enough to be for or against the military taking in people with records, but I think your characterization is inaccurate.


{…When I was in the Army, they would still accept problem children as a diversion program. The judge would say, you’ve got a choice, prison or the Army, and the recruiters made their quota by hanging out at the courthouse. From what I hear, that’s no longer an option. The service won’t take society’s cast-aways…}

{…The number of waivers granted to Army recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown about 65 percent in the last three years, increasing to 8,129 in 2006 from 4,918 in 2003, Department of Defense records show…courtesy of the NYT}


This sounds a lot like Congressman Charles Rangel’s call for National Service ( ).
The first time I heard it, it sounded extreme…but on further consideration, it makes a lot of sense, both for the individual and for the country.
You rightly call out the benefits to the individual (skills and discipline training, etc.), but think also of the impact to our foreign policy on the macro scale: Policy makers would think long and hard about experimenting with regime-change theories (like the foray into Iraq) if the Armed Services were made up of a true cross-section of America, including the children of the political elite.


I agree with Scott, and this is one of the very few points of Charlie Rangel’s that I actually agree with.

The real damaging legacy to our society left by the Viet Nam War was the way draft deferments were structured, placing so much of the actual burden and sacrifice upon those families who could not afford to send their kids to college. I think this has resulted in an entire generation who feel they are “special” and “exempt” and socially far above the rigors of basic military training and service. Perhaps because of the horrors of their experience, the Greatest Generation went too far to protect their children from the hellish nightmare of combat ? We’re now dealing with the unintended consequences. Upper-middle class boomers are quick to say how they “support the troops,” but if they were to have their own precious little princes and princesses enlist and serve in uniform, well then, oh my, how shameful !

Rangel has a good point. The problem with today’s so called ‘War on Terror’ is that there never was a call from our leadership for national service, and not just from certain sectors of society. Now we have active duty, guard and Reserve units stretched so thin that many of our soldiers and Marines are on their third and fourth deployments. Just look at how many times our Dayton Marine MP’s have been rotated in and out of country since 2003. Something has got to give and something has got to change.