I have read with dismay and perplexity the articles and commentary on the early release of prisoners from D.C. correctional facilities.
Last year I tutored in the Friends of Lorton Program run by Georgetown University. We taught inmates courses in English and philosophy. Upon successful completion of the courses, the inmates received three credits from Georgetown's School for Summer and Continuing Education. When they complete their programs, the credits will be transferable to just about any university.
There is no question in my mind that the men are benefiting from this program. While I am not willing to assert that once they return to the streets, they will never again be involved in crime, I do believe they now have a greater desire to avoid crime and have at least some foundation for the skills that can enable them to avoid it.
The debate over early release seems to address two questions: Are prisoners who are released early any more likely to return to crime? And is the state committing an injustice to the rest of society by releasing them early? I believe both questions are moot if we don't first address the issue of what happens for the duration of a prisoner's sentence. What is the experience a prisoner has while he is behind bars, and will this experience make him less likely to return to crime?
From what I have seen and heard at Lorton, a prisoner has very few experiences that would instill the desire -- never mind the skills -- to avoid crime. One of the inmates told me about how he was stabbed in the back of the neck one night in the dark and had the scar to prove it. No arrests were made by the guards, and he was stabbed again when he returned from the infirmary. He now wants to kill his attacker.
Given the conditions in prisons (and overcrowding is only a small part), there really is no point in arguing about the fate of prisoners released one to three months early. Instead, we should be trying to affect the lives of the men in our prisons from the first day they enter -- through an improved environment and educational programs.
The Friends of Lorton Program is a good example of the things we should make sure happen more often in our correctional facilities. As it stands now, this program may not exist much longer. For two years the program has been funded through Georgetown sources and a private endowment. This year a proposal was made to the prison for tuition, but it appears that the money is not forthcoming, and without it, the program is doomed.
The horrendous conditions of our prisons will certainly not be affected by letting prisoners out early. We need to shift the debate and pressure our government to provide adequate funds for improving prison conditions.
EDWARD V. HEISKELL Coordinator, Friends of Lorton Program Washington