Prison: To Punish or to Reform?

Diane Clemens
What I Want My Words To Do To You focuses on words from voices that can be still be heard. Contrary to most of the women profiled in this film, their murdered victims have no voice. The painful reality is dead people don't give good interviews. Living murderers do. And in this instance the murderers' voices are given greater significance by celebrity recitations. We would like to see the same effort put forth on behalf of murder victims in America.

"That said, you question the purpose of prison, setting the question within the parameters set by those whose choices and actions put them there. Incarceration is a sanction, just one of many available to lawbreakers in our society. One of the purposes of incarceration is punishment, another is rehabilitation. However, it serves other purposes as well; specifically, deterrence and protecting the public. As a society, we have chosen to prioritize the public safety of our citizens over programs designed to enhance the personal growth of inmates. Bear in mind that most, if not all, rehabilitation programs offered in our prisons were also available to them before their incarceration. All states provide tax-supported programs to benefit their citizens -- be it academic and/or remedial education, vocational skills training, and chemical abuse, psychological, and/or psychiatric treatment. Every inmate had the opportunity to avail themselves of any or all of these programs before their incarceration. Every inmate made a choice -- to drop out of school, to join a gang, to drink, to use
drugs, to commit a crime. Just like everyone else -- whether you're a CEO, a shift worker or a homemaker -- every inmate must acknowledge and accept the
consequences of their choices and decisions.

"From an inmate's standpoint, it is far better to cloak the issue in the mantle of empowerment and entitlement than public safety and punishment. Inmates are entitled to due process, safe and adequate shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. There is not and should not be any entitlement to any tax-supported program while incarcerated. Our prisons have offered so-called rehabilitation and reform programs for decades at the cost of billions of dollars and countless lives. We encouraged criminals to place the blame for their activities and addictions upon others and we, as a society, did likewise. In our quest to absolve the individual from any accountability we blamed history, poverty, parochial schools, parenting, right on down to the victim of the crime. As a result of our zealousness to shift the blame, our recidivism rate is over 50 percent, the rate of violent crime is exploding, and our prison populations are still growing. It is long past time to toss our emotionally charged, hand-wringing, celebrity-driven approaches to crime, criminals, and punishment and focus instead on individual accountability and responsibility."

Dianne Clemens is President of Justice for All -- Citizens United Against Crime.

Robert E. Roberts
"What I would say is that the environment of a prison should model in every way how we want prisoners to behave upon their release. So what do we want them to do when they get out of prison? We'd like them to have respect and compassion for others and respect for the law. That means that while they are a prisoner, they have to receive respect and the prison has to be law-abiding. Today's prisons are neither. What our prisons teach now is that it is normal behavior to hate your enemies and to harm them. Prisoners will answer with violence for the violence that has been perpetrated against them in prison. I don't feel that, I know that. When you talk about reform, you talk about transforming prisoners' lives in a positive way. But prisons offer anything but an environment for that type of transformation.

"The violence that is coming out of these prisons is a much greater threat than terrorism. The costs are astronomical. I would say that the most imprisoned population in America today is the general public, which is uninformed about the nature and consequences of imprisonment as it is practiced today. They are imprisoned in a mass delusion, which in the long run punishes society far more than society could ever punish a convicted criminal."

Robert E. Roberts is the Founder and Executive Director of Project Return and the author of "My Soul Said to Me: An Unlikely Journey Behind the Walls of Justice."

Jean Lewis, member of the National Board of Trustees for Parents of Murdered Children
"Most of us, while growing up, learned that human life was sacred, and that murder is the most profound injustice. We learned that the courtroom was the place to search for truth and that justice would prevail. In 'What Murder Leaves Behind,' Doug Magee says, 'In the aftermath of murder, families need some sense of counterbalancing justice. Exactly what that justice might entail differs from survivor to survivor, but all agree that they expect a realistic expression of regret and concern from the criminal justice system.' All too often, this is not forthcoming.

"For the ultimate crime of murder, society must have the courage to take a stand, denounce the act as abhorrent, vow not to tolerate it and follow through with a tough sentence. The murderer deserves to be segregated from society, not only as a penalty (punishment) but for the safety of the rest of us. Perhaps convicted murderers could be rehabilitated to be constructive within the prison environment. My personal opinion (and that of many survivors) is that violent offenders should not be shown leniency."

Jean Lewis, mother of murdered son, Scott, is a member of the National Board of Trustees for Parents Of Murdered Children (POMC). She previously served as National President of POMC.

Tonya McClary, National Criminal Justice Representative for the American Friends Service Committee
"AFSC has worked very hard for many decades to change the discourse around prisons, to shift the question away from punishment versus reform, and reframe the debate to address the real reason society wants prisons. The ultimate goal of this work is to reduce and eventually eliminate throwing people in jail as a 'solution' to crime and violence. We work with many groups nationwide to create a system that is not based on prisons, jails, and executions, but on the needs of both victims of crime and perpetrators.

"Yes, all prisoners are entitled to programs aimed at reform. The way a society treats people convicted of crimes is an indicator of the human values of that society. Since the 1980s, there has been a call from many in the criminal justice reform community to only use alternatives to incarceration for 'non-violent' or 'non-dangerous' offenders. We believe that this only legitimizes the imprisonment of large numbers of people based solely on the types of crimes they committed. We believe that we need to shift the center of power and the resolution of conflict away from the criminal justice system."

Tonya McClary, Esq. is a criminal defense/civil rights lawyer and activist, and the National Criminal Justice Representative for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.

Vincent Schiraldi, Founder and president of the Justice Policy Institute
"I think that we really have it backwards on this issue. We are missing a huge opportunity. We are warehousing people, punishing them and returning them to our society worse off than when we got them. I think our goal should be ultimately to help turn people's lives around -- but we are not treating our prisoners that way right now. There is a reason why America has incarceration rates that are seven times higher than our European allies and murder rates that are ten times higher. We are putting people in prison, many times, for non-violent crimes and turning them out more violent and dangerous than when they went in.

"The prison experience is an extraordinarily painful one and anything we can do to help people with that pain is a good thing. That includes art, writing and sports. If people spend their whole time in prison just bottling up that pain and watching TV, chances are when they come out they are going to burst."

Vincent Schiraldi, MSW is the founder and president of the Justice Policy Institute and past president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Research and interviews by Janet Alicea for POV Interactive.