There isn’t enough wanderlust in the world to make me want to spend a significant amount of time in a prison. I don’t need an Orange is the New Black experience to write a book. I’ve never even visited a prison. That may soon change – the visiting part that is. A colleague approached me for help on a project he is starting this summer. He wants to train college students to become tutors for people who are in juvenile detention facilities and in prison. He asked for my help training tutors, and if I wanted, I could tutor inmates as well.
Knowing the high correlation between education and incarceration, I thought that the project was a wonderful idea and eagerly agreed to participate. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “About 41% of inmates in the Nation’s State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997 and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent. In comparison, 18% of the general population age 18 or older had not finished the 12th grade.”
Although the project has not started, I continue to read a lot about the criminal justice system. Although I have never had a personal relationship with the system, I firmly believe that it is important for every citizen to know what is happening to millions of people in this country.
The other day I was reading an article in the New York Times, Inmates’ Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin’s Walls, about The San Quentin News. It’s a paper written by prisoners in San Quentin that is distributed throughout the California prison system and is available to the public.
“Like a small-town paper — San Quentin has a population of 3,855 — The News covers sports (including the San Quentin Giants and the A’s), arts and entertainment, new babies born to the paper’s advisers, folksy holiday greetings and man-on-the-street interviews, San Quentin-style. “We can go right into the yard and get a quote about how inmates are affected by policy decisions,” Mr. Haines, the managing editor, said. Its issues are typically 20 pages and are available online. A yearly subscription costs $40 for members of the public.”
In a notorious prison best known for its death row, the men are committed to what Juan Haines, the 56-year-old managing editor, who is serving 55 years to life for that 1996 bank robbery, calls “boots on the ground” journalism, accomplished without cellphones or direct Internet access. “It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” he said.
While the article discussed the difficulties of producing a paper behind bars, it also focused on the benefits the prisoners gain from being part of the newspaper staff. I know that there are some people who will complain about taxpayer money and all that (most of the money comes from donations), but I feel that it is important to realize that most of these people will be released one day. I hope that they come out with some job skills and tools to make them more productive citizens. For me, that is money well spent.
“When they get involved and see they’re accomplishing something, that could be the one positive tick mark in the ‘good’ column for them,” he said. In learning how to write, he added, “they start expressing themselves in ways other than physical or violent means.”
I checked out the paper’s website and found the content to be quite engaging. One article, More Money Spent on Prisons Than Education, by a contributing high school writer Willie Williams, highlighted the fact that the state of California spends more money of incarceration than education. “Keeping a prisoner in the Santa Rita Jail is worth more to society than keeping a student in Fremont High School in Oakland. That’s right. California spends $46,000 per prisoner incarcerated in state prisons per year, but only $7,000 per student per year.” Wow, what would happen if we spent $46,000 on schools, job training, and health care before a person ended up in prison?
40 bucks to help people read, write and think? I immediately subscribed to the paper.