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New convictions

Some conservatives say local successes show it’s possible to decrease the prison population without endangering public safety

Prisoner Ricky Wheat looks out from his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman

New convictions
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When Scott Huffman landed in a Louisiana prison in 2008, he knew he faced five years away from his 3-year-old son, a battle with a drug habit, and the company of other convicted criminals.

What he didn’t know: A Christmas Day fight, a prison chapel, and an encounter with a group of 10 deaf inmates would lead to a new life.

In the months before Christmas 2010, Huffman languished. Since state prisons were full, officials contracted local jails to house overflow prisoners. Huffman bounced around to a handful of local lockups and satellite centers that maintained a primary goal: lock and feed.

No programs. No attempts to rehabilitate prisoners or prevent future offenses. Overcrowding and underfunding turned some facilities into warehouses for criminals with access to contraband. “Drugs, cell phones, porn, a lot of movies. … You could do pretty much anything you wanted,” says Huffman. “What lessons did I learn?” he asks. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

That changed on Dec. 25, 2010. Huffman got into a fight. Officials shipped him to a state prison: “That was a blessing in disguise.”

Huffman discovered the state prison held church services. He had grown up going to church and says he knew he needed to pursue Christian faith again: “That was the missing link.” A spiritual renewal led to renewed desires: Huffman delved into the prison’s educational opportunities and completed a two-year welding degree.

Meanwhile, another interest grew.

Huffman was drawn to a group of 10 deaf inmates housed together in a prison dorm. Deaf inmates often face especially excruciating prison time: They get in trouble for not hearing guards’ oral commands and are vulnerable to attack and abuse by other prisoners.

Huffman saw their isolation and wished they could attend church. He asked his mother to send a book about sign language. Since signing is an active, three-dimensional discipline, learning from pictures has limits, so Huffman started hanging out with the men. Soon, he was communicating with them.

Eventually, he lived in their dorm and interpreted for them. Though deaf inmates are particularly vulnerable, Huffman found the men plenty capable, and he prized helping them communicate with the world around them.

In a state prison in northern Louisiana, this unlikely inmate had found Christian faith and a clear calling.

He wishes the moment had come earlier. Huffman, now 32, takes full responsibility for his crimes and says incarceration helped set him straight: “But I’m sure if I’d had another option back in the day—that might have served me well. And I wouldn’t have had to disappear from my son’s life for five years.”

HUFFMAN’S STORY isn’t just a lone anecdote.

Studies show prisoners with access to life skills, job training, counseling, and religious programs are less likely to repeat offenses than prisoners who sit idly in cells for years. That includes female prisoners—their number has soared in the last 30 years.

There’s no silver bullet for reforming prisoners or reducing crime. But positive results from a range of programs have led some states to rethink criminal justice.

While high-risk criminals should remain locked up for public safety, proponents of criminal justice reform—including a growing number of conservatives—say lengthy prison sentences aren’t always the best solution for nonviolent and low-risk offenders.

Yes, a long stint in jail gets nonviolent offenders off the streets; but when their sentences are over, they may be more of a public danger than before prison. Some could benefit more from good drug treatment and counseling programs that treat the deeper problems driving the crime and help the offender and the public more in the long run.

For those who do go to prison, opportunities to learn skills and participate in faith-based programs are crucial.

Programs aimed at changed hearts as well as changed behavior help some offenders become like Onesimus, the runaway slave—and likely thief—that Paul wrote about in his New Testament letter to Philemon. (Paul rejoiced in Onesimus’ Christian conversion and told his master that the once-useless servant was now a beloved brother and “indeed useful to you and to me.”)

WORLD has reported on many such programs over the years—but overcrowded prisons make effective programming harder to provide. Ironically, simply locking up criminals may reduce public safety in the long run, because criminals whose hearts don’t change typically commit new crimes once they get out. A 2005 study by the federal Bureau of Statistics showed 76 percent of inmates rearrested within five years of release.

That recidivism rate isn’t inevitable. Independent studies have shown that the percentage of inmates who had graduated from a Prison Fellowship program and been rearrested within a few years was as low as 14 percent.

Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship says Christians should see prison sentencing as an opportunity to restore both victims and perpetrators of crime: “If someone’s sentence isn’t restorative to victims in the community and setting up somebody to be successful in paying back their debt and leaving crime behind, you’re not being very effective.” (See “From Hollywood to prison reform” in this issue.)

Plenty of prisoners won’t reform, but Elain Ellerbe of the conservative group Right on Crime says Huffman’s story is instructive for showing many do change: “We have been far too willing to sacrifice the redeemable for those who can’t.”

IN THE 1980S AND 1990S, such comments were uncommon among conservatives. A massive crack epidemic and soaring crime rates led many lawmakers to push through tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

The prison population exploded. Today, some 2.2 million inmates are in local, state, or federal detention centers in the United States. That number has dropped by 2 percent since 2014, but America still has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Overall crime dropped by 50 percent from 1993 to 2015, according to FBI data. Common sense suggests that’s because more criminals are behind bars, but some statistics undermine that thesis. In a 2011 Washington Post column, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out that while crime had fallen in nearly every state over the previous seven years, some of the states with the largest reductions in crime had also lowered their prison populations.

For example, Florida’s incarceration rate rose 16 percent, while New York’s decreased 16 percent, but the crime rate in New York fell twice as much as it did in Florida: “Put another way, although New York spent less on its prisons, it delivered better public safety.”

Mark Levin and others at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) made a big suggestion in 2007: Instead of the state’s plan to spend more than $2 billion to add some 17,000 prison beds, Levin helped press lawmakers to redirect a portion of those funds toward rehabilitation programs and mental health services for low-level offenders.

Crime in Texas dropped by 20 percent, and the state’s prison population decreased. In 2010, Levin and TPPF formed Texas Right on Crime, a group that advocates nationwide reform based on conservative principles. Texas has also been a pioneer for two decades in encouraging groups like Prison Fellowship. (See “Reasonable risk,” July 17, 1999.)

With nationwide prison costs swelling to $80 billion a year, other states—including ones with Republican-led legislatures and Republican governors—have begun to follow Texas’ lead. South Carolina has continued to lock up high-risk criminals while using community supervision to monitor low-risk offenders.

A report last year showed the state has saved $491 million in new prison construction costs. About 23 percent of released inmates still return to state prisons after three years, but that’s a decrease since 2010.

The examples point out a key dynamic: To address issues of crime, it’s important to address the issues of criminals. And in many cases, that means dealing with inmates as individuals, instead of categories on a grid.

A GROWING NUMBER of those inmates are women. The number of female inmates has surged—from 7,000 in 1980 to 104,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Action Network.

Why the dramatic increase? Some point to a crisis in substance abuse, domestic abuse, and psychological problems. More than 80 percent of women in prison have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, according to the Vera Institute. Nearly one-third have had serious mental illness.

It’s an especially acute problem in Oklahoma: The state has more women in prison per capita than any other state in the nation. In 2009, Tulsa County set out to address the underlying issues with a group of women inmates. The state approved the Women in Recovery program administered by Tulsa’s Family and Children’s Services.

The program allows women who are nonviolent offenders with drug-related offenses to enter supervised drug rehabilitation and counseling for 14 to 18 months instead of facing lengthy prison sentences. (Participants enter the program after they enter a guilty plea for their charges, and a judge determines which women may enter.)

During the program, the women live on-site for several months, eventually get jobs and apartments, and work toward reconciling with their children. Since its inception, only 9 percent of the women who completed the program have returned to prison.

At an April press conference with Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, program graduate Sonya Pyles described her own story: She said she grew up in an “extremely violent and chaotic home” and suffered sexual abuse for seven years. Pyles began experimenting with drugs at age 13 and was a full-blown addict by 19.

She received a six-year sentence for a drug-related crime when she was 26. Pyles said the prison didn’t offer drug treatment programs or life skills training. When she was released, she repeated her addictive patterns and re-offended multiple times. By the time she ended up in Women in Recovery, she was “homeless, helpless, and completely hopeless.” Pyles says the program saved her life. Two years later, she’s still clean.

STAYING CLEAN is good for inmates and the public, but it’s also good for another vulnerable population: the children of prisoners. Some 60 percent of incarcerated women are mothers of children under age 18.

Bobbie Sheppard knows about leaving kids behind.

The 42-year-old inmate at a mixed-custody prison for women in Raleigh, N.C., is in the seventh year of a nine-year term for drug-related crimes. On a recent April afternoon, Sheppard sat in a church fellowship hall with 17 other women preparing for a rare treat: a daylong visit the next day with their children.

Tears flowed early as the women watched a Christian music video: “If you’ve got pain / He’s a pain taker / If you feel lost / He’s a way maker / If you need freedom or saving / He’s a prison-breaking Savior / If you’ve got chains / He’s a chain breaker.”

The video was part of the One Day with God program—a Christian ministry that works with prisons to allow approved inmates to spend an entire day playing, laughing, eating, talking, and bonding with their kids.

Later in the morning, Sheppard talked about her own lost way, as she put stickers on picture frames for her two youngest children: a 9-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. She was pregnant with her son when she began her sentence after multiple drug-related offenses and has never spent a whole day with him: “My hardest lesson is that the world didn’t stop turning just because I decided to be selfish.”

Sheppard takes responsibility for her crimes. She’s become sober in prison, and she’s also found something that she’s good at: She completed a course in dental lab work and has learned how to make dentures. She loves the work and enjoys being good at it. She hopes to open her own lab when she’s released in a couple of years and wonders what would have happened had she found a skill and a purpose earlier: “I’m not sure I would be here.”

Still, Sheppard doesn’t dwell on the past, including her own troubled home life as a child. She says she prizes talking with her children on the phone and seeing them when her mother is able to make the trip to the prison. But she doesn’t make demands: “I don’t want to be selfish anymore.”

Ministry director Scottie Barnes echoes that sentiment and tells the women not to blame anyone for their situation: “Let’s take responsibility, OK?” But she also knows the trouble began for most of these women long before they committed crimes. When she asks how old they were when they first started to drift, they respond: “I was 16.” “I was 15.” “I was 11.”

Some grieve openly as they contemplate their suffering and their sins. One inmate says she was “drowning in bad relationships, but God has stripped them away one by one.” Another sobs as she remembers her mother pleading with her not to go astray as a teenager: “But I said, ‘I got this.’ Now I have to tell my own children when they think they know something, they better listen instead.”

Barnes lets the women lament, but tells them to use their time with their children to lay the groundwork for a stronger relationship, and to be patient: “It’s a hard road for an inmate’s family. You give them time.”

The next morning, most of the children don’t need much time to warm up: They run to their moms. In mini-family reunions (one inmate had five children visiting), the children hugged and hung onto their mothers for most of the day. Moms who had struggled to contain their emotions the day before beamed as they played games and made crafts.

In a nearby prayer room, volunteers prayed through requests the moms had written down the day before: “Pray my kids would see the change in me and know it’s Jesus.” “Pray my mother would be delivered from addiction.” “Pray this will be my last incarceration.”

WHILE CRIMINAL JUSTICE reform advances in many states, it’s slower at the federal level, which holds 13 percent of the nation’s inmates—about half are serving time for drug-related offenses. Nearly all of the federal drug offenders were convicted for trafficking charges.

Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act—a bill that would loosen some of the mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders and give judges more discretion in sentencing.

It would also make available more proven programs for federal prisoners—including rehabilitation, skills training, and faith-based classes—and offer incentives for prisoners to complete the programs.

The committee’s chairman—Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa—says he plans to introduce the bill again this year and hopes Congress will vote on it. The measure has gained bipartisan support, but some Republicans worry the law risks early release for higher-risk criminals. It’s unclear if the committee will be able to assuage those concerns.

In the meantime, many former state prison inmates like Huffman—the sign language interpreter from Louisiana—show the effects of a changed life. Huffman doesn’t deflect responsibility for his crimes, including charges for a serious fight, but says his past crimes don’t define him now.

That was a tough sell after he completed his sentence. Though he was trained in sign language through a prison program, he had a difficult time landing a job with his in-demand skill. Some larger companies didn’t want to hire a convicted felon. Others just seemed skeptical—a common problem faced by released inmates trying to rebuild their lives.

Huffman freelanced until he landed full-time work as an interpreter in February. He’s married and has regained custody of the child he left behind during prison. Not forgetting deaf inmates, he serves on the board of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf)—an organization that advocates for deaf defendants and prisoners.

It all seemed unlikely in the early days of his incarceration and during some of the challenges he faced after release: “A lot of days I wanted to give up, but I knew this is what God called me to do. And I just never gave up.”

–Read more stories on criminal justice reform in this issue of WORLD: "Insider injustices" / "Ready for reform"

Jamie Dean

Jamie is a journalist and the former national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie resides in Charlotte, N.C.


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