A Sister’s Love: You See an Inmate; I See My Brother

I don’t usually write about my personal experiences on my blog. However, I’m often asked why I’m so passionate about corrections. As I reflect on this question, there are a number of answers that come to mind. First, I worked as a correctional officer and I have seen firsthand that the term, “correctional facility” is a misnomer. We currently incarcerate close to 2.3 million people, and another 8 million are on some time of community corrections. We have seen some marginal declines in the prison population, but nothing to suggest that we are “correcting” offenders. Yes, offenders bear some personal responsibility for turning their lives around, but what are correctional professionals doing to assist offenders with this process? Correctional administrators and personnel often give lip service to rehabilitation and treatment. They know all the nice, pretty words to say but their words don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Second, I’ve been to numerous jails and prison across the United States, and see that many correctional professionals receive minimal training to do their jobs effectively. For example, in Tennessee correctional officers attend the Tennessee Corrections Institute for 40 hours of training to become certified as correctional officers. This is hardly a sufficient amount of time to train officers for the people and situations they will likely encounter. There is insufficient training in the area of mental illness, women’s health, drug addiction, and the needs of aging and terminally ill prisoners. Correctional officers and inmates deserve better treatment than this. We should require rigorous training standards to ensure the best working environment for officers, and to increase the odds that inmates will have a real opportunity to turn their lives around.

Third, I’ve been conducting correctional research for a little over a decade. The research indicates that much of what we do in correctional facilities is woefully ineffective. We’ve just recently turned to evidence-based correctional policies, which is a step in the right direction. However, as researchers we often do a poor job of translating our knowledge into policy in the field. I feel a personal responsibility to talk to correctional professionals about “what works” in terms of rehabilitation and treatment. I reach out to the professionals in my community in both prisons and jails. I try to engage them in conversations about correctional research in an effort to improve conditions for correctional officers and the prisoners they serve. That’s right—the prisoners they serve. If correctional facilities were actually correcting offenders, we’d have lower recidivism rates and that would translate into safer communities. Correctional professionals need to view themselves as service professionals, too. Until they do, little will change. It’s easy to blame the inmates, but correctional professionals need to be held responsible as well. For example, the recidivism rate in Illinois hovers around 52 percent. If your customer service stats looked like this, how long would you remain employed?

Finally, none oZackf these reasons alone are why I’m so passionate about corrections. Let’s get real for a moment. I became passionate about corrections from my personal experiences. You see, I had an older brother, Zack, who was incarcerated for most of his adult life. He was an alcoholic and almost all of his criminal offenses were committed while he was under the influence. I do not tell you this to excuse his behavior, but to clarify that much of what he did was the result of his addiction. It was a demon he could not conquer. He spent years in jails and prisons and was encouraged to participate in Alcohol Anonymous (AA) and other self-help groups. However, many of the institutional parole officers and counselors were overworked and simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help him in any real way.

While my brother was incarcerated, he was physically assaulted by a group of inmates and he suffered a severe brain injury. He remained in a coma for two weeks. He could not remember me, other family members, or friends. He forgot how to eat, use the bathroom, walk, and talk. He had to relearn everything. He was like a child. He was never the same. Correctional administrators often mainstreamed him into general population. He was repeatedly victimized by other inmates. His personal belongiZackngs were stolen,  he was beaten, and, at one point, sexually assaulted. A lot of people would say, “So what?!” Others would suggest that he deserved what he suffered because he brought it on himself by way of being incarcerated. To those who would say these things, I say, clearly you’ve never had a loved one behind bars. I didn’t agree with my brother’s choices but I loved him.

I learned that prison is a violent and unforgiving place where rehabilitation is seldom realized, and where human compassion is even rarer. My brother died in prison. He had asked to be moved because he and his cellmate didn’t get along. His cellmate had threatened him on many occasions. While my brother slept, his cellmate heated up a full pot of hot water and doused my brother while he slept. When asked about it later, his cellmate said he did it because my brother’s snoring was too loud. As a result of his injuries, my brother suffered a seizure and died. The man who injured my brother was never held responsible for his actions. Even worse, corrections officers failed to take my brother’s safety concerns seriously. Welcome to our justice system!

So please excuse me when show my passion for corrections. For me and many others, it has had a real impact on our lives. It has taught us that our criminal justice system has a long way to go before we achieve “justice for all.”

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