William C. Smith Jr. and Pam Queen, both Democrats, represent Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
As Maryland lawmakers who serve on the House Judiciary Committee, we jumped at the chance to spend a day at a Maryland state prison. Without the inmates knowing who we were, we joined participants in a workshop organized by the Alternatives to Violence Project, a volunteer-led organization that works with inmates on anger management, violence issues, conflict resolution and communication.
This experience was all the more edifying given the problem our state faces regarding the amount of money and resources we expend every year on our corrections system. In 1980, there were 11,152 people incarcerated in Maryland. Today, there are roughly 20,000 inmates behind bars, and in 2015 we spent about $1.3 billion on corrections. Although we have made significant strides in recent years, our state still spends almost $40,000 to incarcerate an individual and only $13,000 per public school student a year. We indeed have a moral math problem here in Maryland.
The conditions inside the facility were reminiscent of a prison movie: stale air, dim hallways, only the bare necessities. The prisoners described getting about an hour and a half of physical recreation per day, but, depending on where you fell in the lineup for the yard, that could be cut to 45 minutes. Prisoners are allowed outside recreation only four months of the year: June through September. The rest of the year, they are told, is too cold to go outside. Because of lengthy construction projects, some inmates had not been outside for recreation time in more than a year.
On a day when outside temperatures reached 100 degrees, we quickly realized that cellblocks in most state correctional facilities are not air conditioned. It’s so hot that inmates sleep on the floor with their feet in toilet water. Rats infested the food and gnawed through walls.
Of the 15 inmates we spent the day with, two had been wards of the state since childhood, only one had an immediate family member who had gone to college, none had schooling beyond high school before being incarcerated, most were incarcerated for crimes of violence stemming from drugs, and all were poor.
As Maryland legislators, we believe the premise of our correctional system is not merely punitive; it is also restorative. At least 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released, as the country moves toward justice initiatives intended to reform people so they can return to society. As policymakers, we believe it is socially and fiscally responsible to invest in equipping this population with the tools needed to succeed when they eventually assimilate into the community. A recent report by the U.S. Education Department showed that two-thirds of state prison inmates have not completed high school; furthermore, a black man between 20 and 24 without a diploma has a greater chance of being incarcerated than being employed.
Vocational training and college courses can be transformative for these people. One inmate came to prison as a high-school dropout, but he will leave as a college graduate. He told us, “I have achieved the skills needed to live out a future I can be proud of.” But he was among the last in the Maryland correctional system to have had the opportunity to pursue an education while incarcerated because the vast majority of certificate programs and college courses have been cut thanks to a lack of federal and state funding. Fully funding educational training and certification programs is proven to reduce recidivism and should be a fiscal priority for the state.
We encourage other legislators to seek firsthand experiences such as these to better inform the laws we make. Our day in prison has already got us thinking more critically about our work on the House Judiciary Committee. We look forward to promoting policies that provide incarcerated Marylanders access to training and educational opportunities to help them reform and reintegrate into the community.