By Arnulfo T. Garcia
Prison is designed to break you, not to make you better. Our prison system takes people who have had traumatic lives and puts them in circumstances that expose them to even more trauma—like living in a cage with a stranger or being subjected to riots or having live ammunition fired by correctional officers trying to break up fights involving weapons or being isolated from family, friends and significant others.
People are placed in traumatic circumstances—when they’ve already demonstrated they are not able to handle trauma well, and it hardens them in order to survive. While in prison, people are not provided incentives or opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. Then the system kicks them back out into society, where they find themselves further behind than when they left the streets. When they re-offend, the system puts them in prison for life, under the Three Strikes Law.
When you commit criminal acts, you inflict pain and suffering on others. You lose your connection to the mainstream of humanity. Once connection is lost—to ourselves, to someone else, to our family, to our community—real feelings are lost too.
Disconnection and separation create more pain. When we mindlessly acted out from that pain, we lost our rightful connection in the larger community because we forgot who we really are. I know today that we can reclaim our identity and gather the resources to stay true to ourselves. Reclaiming ourselves begins with remembering those affected by our past actions and refocusing our minds on those who will benefit from our commitment to heal and be of service.
This process of reconnecting with the larger community through commitment and service will gain momentum if a new effort to reform California’s Three Strikes Law succeeds. A reform plan entitled CHOOSE1 proposes to save taxpayers millions of dollars by releasing those prisoners who have already done their time for crimes committed before 1994. With the passing of the Three Strikes Law in March of 1994, thousands of prisoners began serving long sentences for crimes that they had paid for already. It’s been 21 years since the passing of “three strikes” and most inmates who would be released under this reform bill are older and wiser. If we don’t reform the mistakes of three strikes, count on it to continue to increase the prison population and the prison budget. That budget is now more than $10 billion and will only continue to grow.
There is an urgent need to change the injustice that’s been going on for decades. As former Attorney General Eric Holder says, “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them. As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens.”
Former President Bill Clinton says, “We basically took a shotgun to a problem that needed a .22. We took a shotgun to it and just sent everybody to jail for too long.” Actually, Clinton is wrong. We didn’t need a gun at all; what we needed was true rehabilitation.
Crime is a symptom of society’s ills. Most criminals aren’t born evil; they are broken people, mentally ill people or desperate people. Therapy gets to the root of the problem and heals the person. Therapy also provides people with the tools to handle stressful situations. Along with education and vocational training, people are given the skills to secure meaningful job opportunities. An offender doesn’t need a life sentence to stop offending; they need the space and opportunity to better themselves. These investments would allow offenders to become assets to the community, instead of liabilities costing society more and more. CHOOSE1 aims to secure the money saved by releasing the aging three strike population and use it to spread rehabilitative services to all California prisons and lower tuition for college students.