Prison Life -- Dignity & Fairness in Short Supply

Today my 32-year-old son Ramiro called, as he usually does, to talk from the Pontiac Prison in Pontiac, Illinois. Over the years we've had some important talks about life, the family, his kids, politics, spirituality, and just regular dad-and-son dialogues. After serving 11 years of a 28-year prison sentence for three counts of attempted murder, Ramiro has mostly stabilized his often turbulent emotions. He left the gang life, something that is dangerous to do in a major state prison system like Illinois--which after California and Texas has the largest prison system and a massive gang presence.

He's hoping to get paroled in three years--after 14 years of good time, which under old state law allows my son to possibly get released with half of his time done. We are praying and working hard for this. Ramiro, in particular, has stayed out of trouble as best he can--but he says this is hard for anyone, even those who only want to do their time.

For example, in another prison, Ramiro dedicated himself to learning horticulture and culinary arts in a special program that allowed prisoners to obtain Associated of Arts degrees with a local college. Ramiro received two degrees and a couple of certificates before this program was cut in ongoing efforts to make prisoners' lives as uncomfortable as possible.

Then he worked in various jobs, including on the grounds, and for a time as a teacher's aid, helping teach English to Spanish-speaking prisoners. Ramiro really got much out of this, but then he got transferred.

Now in the Pontiac Prison--which is really two prisons, a maximum ad-seg prison and medium security facility--Ramiro got a job in the ad-seg section of the prison as a janitor. He did this for about a year, and he really got to like it. He says he was one of the hardest workers. Even the prison staff overseeing this work apparenlty liked him. He did his work without complaint and as thorough as possible.

However, recent changes in prison policy have thrown this up in the air. Prisoners must now change jobs every six months, causing a consternation to prisoners who love to work and do their time without any problems--including my son. In Pontiac, the prisoners must also get rid of their denim jackets, which has kept them warm during Illinois' severe winter months. Even more devastating is a new state policy of ending smoking in all prisons. This looks to be more problematic since smoking becomes important to calm down and deal with prison life.

The system apparently plans to implement this on January 1. They know this may cause problems -- which begs the question: Why does the system do things that they know will upset the little bit of peace and order in a prisoner's life? In anticipation of problems, all state prisons will be locked down for about two months beginning in January.

My son called to get a little extra money so he can get stocked up on commissary food and items for the lock down. He's taking it pretty well--for him it's par for the course. The system always comes up with something to disrupt the prisoners' existence, even with things that worked (like education and jobs). Smoking, I understand, is unhealthy, but these other programs helped keep prisoners from coming back.

Yes, prisons have many pathological, maladjusted and sick individuals. But the vast majority are mostly criminals of want--those who are on drugs (addicted in need of real treatment) or committing acts out of desperation (stealing, robberies, cons, etc.). They need trades, schooling, even simple life skills so they can adapt to a relatively healthy life in the free world. This does not happen. As most people know--prison becomes their university for a more sophisticated criminal life, which is paid for by our tax dollars.

People will learn something, even if we deprive them of everything else. We need to provide real and comprehensive rehabilitation and re-entry programs so that most of these prisoners don't end up in the same place over and over again.

My son is doing his time. He made his mistakes and is paying for them. What I question is the way we tend to enshrine these mistakes for a life time. He needs to change, but we must also help in the healing process. Instead, we tend to put more trauma and deprivation over past traumas and deprivations.

So far Ramiro is on track to get out in a few years--and despite whatever barriers, disappointments and obstacles get in the way (and he's had 11 years of them) he's still focused on coming home. I know the key has been our growth as a family that never abandoned him, as too many other families have done to other prisoners.

We're doing our part so that Ramiro comes home, stays out of trouble, becomes a decent father to this kids, and learns to contribute positively to his community and country.

The state needs to do their part as well--considering the public trust they have as a tax-supported entity. I request that the public put pressure on politicians and policy makers to provide a real path out of the criminal life, instead of helping push more and more of mostly poor and neglected young people into the more dense aspects of this life

This only fuels the growing prison industry, one of the most lucrative in the country, for a small class of people at the expense of our children.


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