Answering the eyeglass critics
March 13, 2012
OPINION by ROBERT THOMAS
Upon reviewing the responses to my editorial regarding the lack of optometric treatment provided to prisoners at the California Men’s Colony (CMC), I feel compelled to make a few comments and provide some facts.
First, I admit that the way I chose to donate eyeglasses to the students I teach in my GED Test preparation program at CMC West was wrong.
Even though my only reason for doing so was to enable my students to complete their academic work, I circumvented the appropriate procedures for donating materials to the institution and should have gone through the proper channels to do so. But I have tried for years to bring attention to the needs of inmates with vision impairments who are assigned to education programs.
The optometrist at CMC West, as was mentioned in the article, is only available four hours per week during which time he treats an average of 32 inmates for approximately 7.5 minutes each. As a result, inmates spend as many as nine months sitting in a classroom unable to do their schoolwork due to their inability to gain access to optometric services, a circumstance which would be considered intolerable by an average public citizen.
Secondly, if the concern is that the eyeglasses should be viewed as “weapon stock,” then the CMC administration is guilty of knowingly allowing eyeglasses to be sold through the inmate commissary for approximately twelve dollars a pair and to be distributed by the prison medical department. In fact, eye wear is not considered to be contraband inside the prison, nor have I ever heard of a pair of eyeglasses being used to manufacture a lethal weapon. But, even though corrective eye wear can be purchased by inmates, many have no financial support from friends and family members and have no means of earning money while in prison.
In addition, I fully understand the resentment felt by average public citizens who must pay for their own health care while inmates are provided medical services free of charge. Nonetheless, once a prisoner is incarcerated in one of California’s state prisons, he or she becomes a ward of the state and the state assumes a legal obligation to maintain the physical well-being of the inmate and provide health services when required.
Failure of the California Department of Corrections in the past to provide adequate medical care for inmates has resulted in the expenditure of thousands of tax dollars for lawsuits brought by prison inmates against the state of California, which has resulted in federal court-ordered improvements in the medical treatment of prisoners and ultimately, the placement of the CDCR medical system under federal receivership. Two of the most notable examples are Coleman vs. Wilson (1992) and Armstrong vs. Davis (2001).
Members of the public may not realize that most convicts have not committed violent crimes that warrant long prison terms. To emphasize this point, of a total of 11,200,000 crimes that were prosecuted in the United States during 2008, approximately 87.5% were property crimes that did not involve acts of violence; whereas, 12. 5% were listed as aggravated assaults, robberies, forcible rapes, or murders (Federal Bureau of Investigations, September 2009).
In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission surveyed 77,000 U.S. prisoners in 2008 and determined that their average period of incarceration was approximately 50 months (Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, 2008). Consequently, most prisoners return to the communities in which they were arrested after serving only a few years of incarceration, making the problem of how to prevent them from re-offending and returning to prison of paramount concern.
The current annual cost to house prisoners in a California state prison is more than $50,000 per inmate. Therefore, the most obvious direct benefit the taxpayer can receive by funding education programs is realized through the cost savings generated by the kinds of early release incentive laws that have been passed by the Indiana and California legislatures. The California prison system permits inmates to earn as much as six weeks off of their prison sentence per year by making gains in education.
In terms of prisoner recidivism, a study conducted by the Indiana Department of Corrections determined that prisoners who completed education courses in the 2008-2009 school year reduced their sentences by a total of 1.3 million days, resulting in a savings of $68 million (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010). The Three State Recidivism Study– carried out in the states of Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio in 1997–revealed that every dollar spent on prison education programs resulted in a cost savings of two tax dollars (Steurer, Smith, & Tracy, 2001).
Furthermore, the study tracked more than 3600 former prisoners for up to three years following their incarceration. Among the findings was that those who participated in an education program while in prison were up to 29 percent less likely to return to prison.
Research that was conducted in 1994 by the state of Texas penal system revealed the following concerning inmates who went to school while in prison: Those who graduated from a GED program or finished a vocational training program were 20 percent less likely to re-offend; only 13.7 percent of those who achieved an associates of arts degree returned to prison; just 5.6 percent of prisoners who earned a baccalaureate were rearrested; as few as .1 percent of those who attained a master’s degree ended up back in jail (Epowiki, 2008).
There is no guarantee that any individual prisoner will automatically transform into a law-abiding citizen simply by becoming better educated academically or by learning a vocational trade.
However, without the opportunity and means for change, no improvement can be expected of those who want to leave their criminal lifestyles behind and become constructive members of mainstream society, instead of outcasts who continually return to prison as a perpetual financial burden for law-abiding tax-payers. Otherwise, prisons represent nothing more than human warehouses that cost as much as $60 billion a year to operate in the United States and schools of crime in which those who are incarcerated for non-violent felonies become heavily influenced by hardened career criminals.
To complicate the issue, 67 percent of prisoners are rearrested and 52 percent return to jail within three years after being paroled from a U.S. penal institution (Gibbons & Katzenbach, 2010). Hence, the purpose of correctional education is to provide learning experiences designed not only to address academic and vocational competency, but that also promote changes in mentality, leading to subsequent alterations in behavior. To this end, the prison classroom offers the best opportunity to achieve the overall goal.
However, if they can’t read, prisoners are essentially prevented from learning, teachers can’t do the job they are hired to do, and tax payers are forced to bear a greater burden than necessary.
Robert Thomas is a teacher at the California Men’s Colony.