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Make prisons places of reform, not a political game

prisonBy Willis X. Harris

Many ex-offenders have a stressful time readjusting into society due to prolonged incarceration. Also, because of their status as being ex-offenders, they experience hardships in finding meaningful and gainful employment, decent housing and other benefits given to the general public.

In theory, once someone has paid their debt to society, i.e., served their punishment or prison sentence, society helps rehabilitate and restore its fallen members. They are embraced and forgiven with full restoration of privileges and rights. This was the theory we projected to the nation and to the world. We lied and externalized these beliefs as unacceptable.

In America, we incarcerate more people than all other nations combined. Not only do we confine adults who violate the laws, we also incarcerate children and keep them confined for many years, sometimes for 40 years and more. Years ago, there were appropriate resources in our prison system to facilitate rehabilitation. Prisoners availed themselves of these resources and recidivism was very low. Today, most of these resources are a thing of the past.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s we had meaningful educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs here in Michigan. Disgruntled politicians and some prison officials believed we were “coddling” criminals and wasting public resources on them. They ignored the facts that prisoners who took advantage of these programs, most of them never returned to prison, especially the prisoners who were serving life sentences, lifers like Donnie Graham, Matthew Jones, Henry “Ponderosa” Johnson, Wonza Bullock, William Sleeper, Walter Codd, Nick Lazin, LaSalle X. Washington, Frank Oliver, and Willis X. Harris, to name a few. There are many other lifers, released via commutation of sentences by our governors, too numerous to mention who remained crime-free and who passed as free men and women.

In Michigan, we simply warehouse men and women. The emphasis is “time for crime” and not “reform, restore and release.” True, offenders should serve a prison sentence, but when does punishment end and rehabilitation begin? Besides being a burden on taxpayers, what do we accomplish by keeping men, women and even juveniles, for 25-50 years in prison? Why do we keep elderly, blind and totally handicapped people in prison?

In closing, if we want to change the culture of crime in America in general and Michigan in particular, we need to change our way of thinking and approach to criminal behavior by upgrading and changing our criminal laws and justice system to administer justice and not political agendas and personal ambitions.

Willis X. Harris is a former prisoner who was given a mandatory life sentence at age 17 in 1956.  He served 23.5 years and was released in 1980 at age 41 via commutation of sentence by former Governor William G. Milliken.  He has been free for 34 years.

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