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Oklahoma authors explain broken prison system on C-SPAN2

Nov 12, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

NORMAN, Okla. – America’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed 700 percent since 1980, making the land of the free the second largest home per capita of the imprisoned. Those entombed behind bars have a lot in common, say the authors of the book, A Country Called Prison (Oxford University Press, 2015). Dr. John Carl and Dr. Mary Looman both teach at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Carl is the assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice; Dr. Mary Loom is a psychologist and adjunct professor for the masters in criminal justice program. She works in private practice and for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. They discussed the failings of the American prison system during a forum at the St. Thomas Moore Parrish in Norman where C-SPAN2 filmed the segment. It aired Saturday as part of the network’s BookTV series.

Mindy Ragan Wood, Red Dirt News , Nov. 2,2015

NORMAN, Okla. – America’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed 700 percent since 1980, making the land of the free the second largest home per capita of the imprisoned. Those entombed behind bars have a lot in common, say the authors of the book, A Country Called Prison (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Dr. John Carl and Dr. Mary Looman both teach at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Carl is the assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice; Dr. Mary Loom is a psychologist and adjunct professor for the masters in criminal justice program. She works in private practice and for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

They discussed the failings of the American prison system during a forum at the St. Thomas Moore Parrish in Norman where C-SPAN2 filmed the segment. It aired Saturday as part of the network’s BookTV series.

A Country Called Prison cites research and statistics which paint a startling picture of the U.S. prison system and the treatment of offenders.

America incarcerates approximately 707 people per 100,000 citizens. France, incarcerates only 146, Great Britain 102 and Japan’s incarceration rate is 14 times lower than the U.S.

Per the national population, Dr. Carl said that’s about 16 million people or a nation twice the size of Israel. “It would be the fourth largest state, just under Florida and larger than Illinois.”

America incarcerates approximately 707 people per 100,000 citizens. France, incarcerates only 146, Great Britain 102 and Japan’s incarceration rate is 14 times lower than the U.S.

Per the national population, Dr. Carl said that’s about 16 million people or a nation twice the size of Israel. “It would be the fourth largest state, just under Florida and larger than Illinois.”

Punishment hasn’t stopped drug addiction and hasn’t made us safer, said. Dr. Carl.  He said it also doesn’t mean we are a nation full of violent criminals.

“I thought maybe Great Britain had less crime; not necessarily. Assault rape is higher there than in the US. If I look at theft, it’s higher in France. The one thing that’s fascinating about our crime rates is that we lead the world one category of people we incarcerate and that’s drug offenders,” said Dr. Carl.

What most prisoners have in common

Dr. Mary Looman, who sees prisoners daily for mental health needs, has 33 years’ experience in corrections. She said she began to notice that offenders had several things in common that set them up for a life behind bars.

She quoted some statistics regarding non-violent offenders: 78 percent don’t have a high school diploma or GED; 78 percent have drug dependency, and about 50 percent have a mental health history. Those with jobs before incarceration earn about 50 percent less than those not incarcerated.

“I’ve never, ever met a young person who said when I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, ‘gee I can’t wait to commit a crime and become a prisoner.’ Never. So what happened between this little baby and this teenager who wanted to be a fireman but is a person who ends up in prison?” she said.

Dr. Looman said early childhood trauma like sexual and emotional abuse, and neglect play a pivotal role in a person’s ability to develop skills to thrive in American society. The pain and stress of a chaotic and abusive environment perpetuates a domino effect.

“They drop out of high school typically between 9th and 11th grade. This is really because from childhood and beyond they don’t learn the social structures in junior high and high school. High school is where we are generally socialized to American culture.

They start using (drugs) around 11 or 12. The brain doesn’t stop growing until age 20, so they’re delayed in their development and that’s why they don’t get good jobs,” she said.

Instead of the typical skills like long range planning, simple problem solving, and managing social relationships, offenders have an entirely different set of skills that place them outside American culture. Their skills are to survive on a moment-to-moment basis however they can.

She agreed with Dr. Carl that not everyone in prison is Charles Manson. “Many of these who are in for drug offenses aren’t there because they’re bad people, but because something happened to them in childhood in which they got hurt really bad. They used drugs to stop the hurt.”

She also touched on female incarceration and substance abuse. “Fifty-seven percent report sexual abuse; 25 percent had that abuse before age 18 and 38 percent after age 18. Sexual abuse is one of the most damaging abuse psychologically that you can experience. As John was saying, most women in prison are there for drug possession to numb that pain. Most of them have PTSD and they don’t have the money to get treatment, counseling or medication, so they numb themselves.”

Failures of the system and possible solutions

Dr. Carl said the recidivism rate is one indicator that the ideals of the American prison system are flawed. “Approximately half of the people we send out of prison will be back in prison in a 3 to 5-year period. Most of them are parole violations, not because they committed a crime. They didn’t get a job in time, or they missed a parole meeting or failed to attend required parenting classes. Our recidivism rate continues to get worse.”

Dr. Looman said that unlike other institutions, prisons don’t share a common goal. “At a hospital the goal is that the patient gets well and stays well. At schools the teachers, coaches, and cooks have the same goal to educate the child. At prison, we don’t have that.”

Dr. Looman and Dr. Carl both believe the common goal at prisons should include public safety, but also to rehabilitate the offender so they can re-enter society permanently.

Instead they said when offenders are released, they’re set up to fail. They become second class citizens. “We create this status of people. This population is almost always from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re generally poor and poorly educated and when we release them from prison with a stamp that says ‘ex-con’ that they can never get out from under it…are we surprised they reoffend?” asked Dr. Carl.

In Oklahoma ex-offenders have to declare a felony record on a job application. That sometimes precludes them employment or they can only find low paying jobs which aren’t enough to support themselves and the fines they are required to pay to stay out of prison.

Dr. Carl appealed to those who may only think of the financial failure of prisons. “We spend 50 billion to incarcerate our own citizens. Every time we incarcerate them we turn them into tax consumers instead of tax producers.”

He also cited the human loss. “About half (of incarcerated people) are parents. You increase the odds that their child will eventually be incarcerated by 25 percent.”

How to fix it

Dr. Carl and Dr. Looman had suggestions for immediate solutions. One of those was to let the funding follow success.

“When social programs don’t work, that don’t prove measurably effective, usually they don’t get funded, they get shut down. But in the prison system, nothing succeeds like failure. If I have a high recidivism rate, I get the people back so I get more tax dollars so I can hire more people or builder bigger prisons or build a private one so people can invest their stock money in it. So one of the things that would be interesting is to fund prisons or private prisons based on their recidivism rates,” he said.

Dr. Looman said interactive televised classes with an instructor would cost little. “I could teach from my office, 400 offenders.”

She also suggested the creation of a social services program within the department of corrections to connect offenders with community members who can help them return to work. “Within six months a lot of them are back because they had no food, shelter, clothing.”

Dr. Carl said expungement shouldn’t be only for those who can afford a high priced lawyer and automatic expungement for some offenses would help offenders return to work. “If you’re affluent, and you get a felony charge like a DUI, you can get a lawyer to hopefully get your record expunged and you won’t have to report this for a job. What if you consider that for non-violent offenders?”

He also posed the dilemma of mentally ill and substance dependent offenders. According to Jones and Glaze (2006), 56 percent reported mental health problems.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that says prison is actually cheaper than drug treatment. While it’s certainly true that drug treatment isn’t universally successful…it’s 3-5 times cheaper than the cost of incarceration.”

 

To view the entire video on C-SPAN2, click here.