Getting Your Hands Dirty–Prison Reform

You hear the expression all the time–“Getting your hands dirty.” A yuppie call to get in the trenches and act like you’re doing the work, just like the common folk. It’s a trite little phrase used frequently by the likes of Martha Stewart, political figures, and CEO’s who haven’t looked at an assembly line since they inherited one in Great-Great-Uncle Ferdinand’s last will and testament.

Those words–getting your hands dirty–mean something a little different in prison.

In my early days in prison, I remember responding to countless alarms and literally picking up the aftermath of gang violence. Once, in Folsom Prison’s 5 Building, I recall loading a stabbed-up Aryan Brotherhood member into a gurney and his blood was everywhere, on my pants, my hands and all over the tier. Within minutes, the tier was hosed down, and prison life went on. We got our hands dirty.


In prison, unlike the permissive Charter Schools run by the Sisters of the Perpetual Snowflake, there are no safe places where your feelings won’t be challenged. There have been occasional misguided forays into what some called, “prison reform” that tried to repaint the system with empty words and platitudes. Inmates were called “customers” and “stakeholders.” Now, before you think I’m heading down a right wing rant–yes, the system should concern itself with the impact on the lives and well being of those living within it, but not at the expense of public safety.

The “customer” advocates may have forgotten what the prison system is. It is not a place where the socially maladjusted come to for a spa visit to recalibrate their chi. People, for whatever motivated or influenced their behavior, from drug addiction, to mental illness, or the impact of New Jim Crow laws, are sentenced to prison for their commission of a criminal act and they should be held accountable.


5 Building cells at Folsom Prison                    Image courtesy of the folsom prison museum

The real question is, where should this “accountability” take place? Should everyone go to prison? The voters in California recently said no and thousands of prison beds were emptied. There have been stories of new crimes and violence committed by those who should have been in prison.

The new law is little more than a catch and release program because nothing happens to change the underlying behavior. It was an budget exercise–lets make prisons cheaper. If mental illness, drug addiction, and underlying social issues aren’t addressed early, then why should we be surprised when the criminal carousel continues to dump tragically broken people into the system.


image via the fog city journal

A consequence of open the door legislation, is that the inmate population changes. The less likely to offend, the workers and the “convicts” who know how to do time, all disappear. What’s left behind, are the sick, lame, lazy and critically broken. We are seeing an uptick in prison violence, assaults on correctional staff from this higher risk inmate population. And the cost actually increases. Prison isn’t a place for “customers.”

I’m fully supportive, of intervention, treatment and rehabilitative programs. However, these services, have to be considered more than simply a cure for inmate idleness. Prison may not be the best place to “fix” all of society’s ills. But, most of these convicted felons are coming back to their communities–shouldn’t we have prepared them to reintegrate?


image via

A wise man once told me that we should release inmates in better shape than we got them…

Maybe It’s time to get our hands dirty.


  1. Excellent Jim! My all time favorite has to be the addition of the “R” for Rehabilitation and then stripping the vast majority of the Vocational/Educational Programs. WOW, what a concept!

    1. Thanks Bart! I’m very happy to be on this side of the walls now, but I feel for the folks who still work there. It’s got to be tougher than ever. The stripped down programing made very little sense. On the bright side, PIA has actually picked up the baton and seems to be doing some really interesting and productive work.

    2. Joseph Isola · · Reply

      Add an “R” and cut the actual programs – it’s the type of thinking we all watched for decades.

      1. So true, Joe. Cut and eliminate anything that could make an impact. But, hey. We could still point to the “R.”

  2. Doesn’t sound like there are many answers. Sad.

    1. There are answers. It will take some political will to go there. Invest in youth programs, drug courts, programs for vets and meaningful pre-release programs designed to get offenders self supporting and off the streets.

  3. Dee Quenemoen · · Reply

    I see you have kept up on the latest in after prison “reform” programs . Someone must be getting rich on all these programs that parolees seem to go to only if they want to, even when it was a condition of parole and very little, if any, consequences for not attending…..follow the money is always a useful trail. 4 years and counting until she is eligible to retire.

    1. I don’t believe anyone is getting rich, it seems to be more of a political cycle. Hardline, tough on crime for a while, then the pendulum swings back the other way. We need a middle ground. Tell little Q to keep here head down.

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