John Santa, Chairman of Malta Prison Volunteers of Connecticut, presented a strong message to Westport Sunrise Rotary on Friday: Connecticut’s prison system needs to rethink its objectives. The system retains its historic emphasis on punishment and has been slow to implement programs and services essential to making offenders successful in society and so reducing recidivism.
The problem, simply stated, is that almost 50 percent of offenders are returned to prison within two years. Of those who complete substance abuse and/or job training programs, only 20 percent return, and fewer than ten percent of employed offenders return to the correction system.
Santa, through the Prodigal Project in Bridgeport, is building a network of employers and public agencies to provide the education, skills training and jobs needed to foster success among newly released offenders.
The Statistics Are Staggering
He cited a few statistics. “The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison inmates.” We incarcerate 750 of every 100,000 people – a greater percentage than any other country in the world. And we have more prisoners than any other country in the world.
Among minorities the situation is starker. 47 percent of Connecticut’s inmate population is black, against only nine percent of the general population. Nationally, one of every nine black men between the ages of 18 and 34 is in prison. In fact, more African-Americans are in prison today than were slaves in 1850.
The costs are just as astounding. “In the mid-1970s, Connecticut spent $15 million to incarcerate 3,000 people. Today we spend $750 million to keep 17,500 people behind bars.”
Connecticut, Santa said, is one of only five states that spends more on its corrections system than on higher education.
How We Got Here
Before the “crazy times of the 1960s and 1970s” prison populations were far smaller and incarceration and recidivism were not the issue they are today. “By the 1980s many looked for stronger law and order.”
Most states, and the federal government enacted harsh laws with long sentences. Among them were the Rockefeller drug laws and Reagan’s War on Drugs that imposed long mandatory sentences and swamped prisons with even petty offenders. Laws affecting non-drug crimes only added to prison populations.
At one point “a new prison was opening every month somewhere in The U.S.”
Unfortunately Connecticut’s “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” culture that permeated that era’s correction system remains. It remains an obstacle to introducing education, treatment and training reforms that can open the doors to success for offenders.
Santa came to this issue as a pragmatist. “I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I am a businessman.” The catalyst was a problem in his own company – a senior employee was convicted of a white collar crime and incarcerated.
He leads the Prodigal Project’s efforts to “bring together Connecticut’s employers and a pool of well-qualified ex-offenders,” as he told the Connecticut Business and Industry Association in 2010.
He offered a simple rationale “a job is the best social service for the offender. It provides self-respect for the individual and turns a $35,000 ward of the state into a tax payer – it’s a win-win.”
“What’s more,” he said, “every employed ex-offender I meet is volunteering for some community service or activity. They have this compulsion to give back. So when they get a job, we’re unleashing that resource too. You’re getting someone who’s contributing to the community above and beyond just being a taxpayer.”
Strengthening the prisons’ education system is essential. While the Department of Correction already runs one of the largest school systems in the state, the average prisoner “reads at the fifth grade level.”
The system must also become more proactive in providing life and job skills needed by the 97 percent who will be released – particularly the 60 percent who are not violent. And it must treat the 90 percent of Connecticut’s inmates who are in prison for “compulsive addictive behaviors – sex, gambling, alcohol, drugs.”
He concluded by showing a video in which one man talked about growing up with no family support, going to prison at 17 for seven years, getting out and going back to his old haunts and habits, and finding himself returned to the correction system.
Out for the second time, he entered a Prodigal Project program and turned himself around. Today he’s a family man with a job, a house and two vehicles – and a dog.
He said “having a job when you get out is a gift.”
Those interested in the Prodigal Project should go to http://www.mpvct.org/prodigal_project.html.