The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:38 pm

'The fault in ourselves' for incarceration issues

By Kara Hackett The Journal Gazette

You probably know the Indianapolis author John Green for his hit novel "The Fault in Our Stars." It’s the story of two teenage sweethearts with terminal cancer that was made into a blockbuster movie last summer.

But what you might not know is that John and his brother, Hank Green, also make YouTube videos about a wide range of current events and ideas, and they’re making some hard-hitting topics interesting to young adults.

They call themselves the VlogBrothers, and together, they’ve created a network of more than 6,000 video-style blogs on YouTube with a subscriber base of more than 6 million people.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to one of their popular videos about "Mass Incarceration in the US."

In the 3-minute, 40-second film, Hank Green says that, of all things in the world he could make a video about, the topic he would choose is incarceration in America because "it is messed up."

America is the world’s largest jailer. We have 5 percent of the world’s population and, yet, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

And the problem isn’t going away. Since 1970, our prison population has increased eightfold.

Hank Green thinks the rising numbers are symptoms of a system that perpetuates problems by focusing on punishments more than corrections.

"The policy seems to be if you’ve committed a felony we just give up on you," Hank Green said.

When I watched the video for the first time, I got that helpless feeling like when you hear about kids dying of cancer. I wanted to change the system, but what could I do?

Besides, most prisoners aren’t helpless like kids dying of cancer. Most of the time, they’re people who made choices to do wrong in the first place, and that’s what got them into trouble. 

But when a reader named Stacy Erickson wrote to The Journal Gazette a few weeks ago about state budget funds, I realized that we have a choice in the matter, too.

Erickson was writing to discourage the proposed use of about $51 million state budget funds for additional cell houses at the maximum-security Wabash Valley Correctional Facility and medium-security Miami Correctional Facility.

"The money would be spent more wisely not on more cells but on educational programs that prepare offenders for reintegration into society and an eventual new life beyond the prison walls," Erickson said.

Regardless of what you think about redemption, she has a point we should all take to heart: We need to be preparing felons for life after prison rather than condemning them to lives behind bars, and part of the problem is our own perceptions.

Just ask Doug Gaston, a drug abuse treatment specialist at the Federal Correctional Institute in Milan, Michigan.

Gaston helps inmates make the rocky transition from prison to life after prison through a nine-month program called the Residential Drug Abuse Program.

He works primarily with nonviolent drug abusers, and he said the biggest hurdle former felons face is public perception after they get out.

"It’s a huge problem," Gaston said. "As soon as they tell most people they’re a convicted felon, the door slams."

Even though more than half of all felons in America are doing time for nonviolent crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most of them have a hard time finding work when they are released. They usually end up with jobs at the bottom of the pay scale without opportunities for advancement, and are ineligible for welfare, food stamps and public housing.

The instability of it all is poor incentive for keeping them on the right track.

"Some of these guys were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year slinging dope on the street," Gaston said. "Then they get their life turned around and go get a job at Burger King, so it’s a huge step down."

And it’s a step many former felons can’t make, so they resort to old ways of getting money, and this is where the problem comes in for the rest of us.

America’s prisons have revolving doors. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in April 2014 that three-quarters of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested again within five years, and Gaston sees a few changes that could break this cycle.

To begin, he says America has to end its "war on drugs" aimed at eradicating the use of drugs with strict laws and harsh punishments.

"I’ve met guys in here looking at life sentences for growing marijuana," Gaston said.

So instead of prison, which can escalate drug issues with solitary confinement, he suggests rehabilitation for drug users.

He says we also need to change the public’s perception of prisoners, and if you ask me, that requires us to take an honest look at ourselves. We need to change the fear that all felons are inherently dangerous even after they’ve served their time, and we need to rethink policies we support that perpetuate this fear.

It’s time we prioritize education and correction over punishment and more prison cells because, as Gaston says, the fact of matter is that many prisoners are going to be released.

"It’s better to prepare them for release rather than to just say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key.’"

We complain about spending money on prisoners. We complain felons reverting to old habits and about rising recidivism rates.

But if we take an honest look at incarceration issues in America, we might find "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Want to get in on the conversation?

The University of Saint Francis is hosting a free public event called "Voices of Restoration," featuring Misty Wallace, the Indianapolis Regional Coordinator of the
Bridges to Life program which works to bring healing to victims of
crime, reduce repeat offenses and make communities safer.

When: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Where: North Campus, 2702 Spring Street

For more information: Contact
Audrey Anweiler at 260-969-9146 or, or Sister
Jacinta Krecek at 260-399-7700 ext. 8123 or

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