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Prison as a place of healing

United States
Human Rights
Heal graffiti

Steve Snodgrass under a Creative Commons Licence

‘[A]s a prison governor, or politician, we have to approach [incarceration] in a different way. We have to respect people’s need for revenge, but not use that as a foundation for how we run our prisons. Many people here have done something stupid – they will not do again. But prisons are also full of people who have all sorts of problems. Should I be in charge of adding more problems to the prisoner on behalf of the state, making [him or her] an even worse threat to larger society because I have treated [him or her] badly while [they] are in my care? We know that prison harms people. I look at this place as a place of healing, not just for [their] social wounds but for the wounds inflicted on [them] by the state [during their] years in eight square metres of high security.’
Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, Prison Governor/Warden of Bastøy Island prison in Norway

I came across an old newspaper article while getting rid of excess paper in this cell. It was an Erwin James essay titled ‘The prison that works’, in the Guardian’s 4 September 2013 issue. The subtitle of the piece was: ‘The departing governor of a jail with a reoffending rate of just 16% shares the secrets of his remarkable success.’ The prison in question – according to James – ‘[while] home to some of the most serious offenders in Norway, has received increasing global attention… for the humane conditions under which the prisoners live – in houses rather than cells in what resembles a cosy self-sustaining village.’

In most of the rest of Europe, and America, the reoffending rate hovers between 65 and 70 per cent. If you are inclined to ask why Nilsen’s method works and so many other prison administrators’ methods do not, I can tell you: it is because of Nilsen’s ample use of respectful and humane treatment. If you treat most people in prison like faecal-matter, that is exactly what they are very likely to literally throw back at you, with very few exceptions.

Prison administrators – especially in the US – have to start treating prisoners like human beings. They have to stop denying us access to people who have always recognized prisoners’ humanity and who try to embrace our humanity via correspondence and visitation, including those who live in other countries (in 1995, no prisoner in G-Unit here was allowed correspondence with people who did not live in the US). Many Georgia prison administrators are xenophobes of the highest, and lowest, order. Friendly correspondents and visitors, more often than not, help rehabilitate prisoners. Prison administrators frequently resent such rehabilitation, but will not employ any rehabilitation efforts of their own.

In all cases, recognizing the prisoner’s humanity the moment they are imprisoned is the proper course to follow: then, all of your post-prison support is likely to be useful – not only to free society but to the ex-prisoner as well. Let me add that being imprisoned is more than sufficient punishment, although most prison administrators incorrectly and unintelligently presume that they must exact a special kind of revenge on prisoners.

The political and prison administrative canard that prisoners are greatly influenced by other prisoners’ criminality is way overblown. The factual and, alas, little-known truth is this: prisoners are far more negatively influenced by prison administrators and their underlings than by other prisoners. It is no exaggeration that prison administrators contribute more to reoffending/recidivism rates and therefore, via logical extrapolation, of ‘street crimes’ than anyone on the planet!

Yes, I know that some prisoners are incorrigible and demonstrate behaviours that suggest they should always be in prison, but how can anyone say that such a person is not capable of change – especially if you change the way you treat them? If you have never tried treating prisoners humanely and with respect you do not have a tried-and-true authority to make such judgement calls.

If you have to worry about something, it should be whether or not some of those fat-cats who run America’s prison systems were wise and progressive enough to be among the ‘visitors present from 25 international…organizations [all of whom were] keen to find out the secret of Nilsen’s success’, according to columnist James.

Nilsen has also figured out a way to achieve all of his phenomenal prison-operation-success at considerably less expense than those prison administrators who are still clinging to the old ways that are rooted in the administrative brutalization and dehumanization of men, women and children – not only in the State of Georgia but all over the US.

The hypocrisy of such brutal operations is only rivalled by some prison administrators’ feigned astonishment when they find out one of their recent parolees has, in turn, brutalized and dehumanized someone on yet another bloody street. The US has many islands that are well suited for the kind of incarceration operations Nilsen promotes. The Georgia Department of Corrections should be beating a path to his door, but we Georgia prisoners know that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Please write to me:

Mr. Brandon Astor Jones, UNO No. 400574; G3
Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison
Post Office Box 3877
Jackson, Georgia 30233, USA

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