Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Prisons Without Walls

Several years ago I accepted an invitation to be the co-leader of a Community Building Workshop in a minimum security federal penitentiary near Pensacola, Florida. When I arrived at the address to which I was directed, I was not at all sure I was at the right location. There were no walls or fences or bars on the windows or guard towers. I commented to the Chaplain who had planned the event that it seemed unusual to see a prison with none of the conventional appearances of confinement. He said: "The walls and fences and bars of this prison are in the minds of the inmates".

During the past year I have spoken several times to the inmates of an Alabama Board of Corrections program called "Life Tech". It is, for the most part, an extension of Tutwiler Women's Prison in Wetumpka, Alabama. The facility is located just down the hill from Tutwiler. The first time I was escorted there by Parole Officer, Gary Parsons, I got the same impression I had when I visited the minimum security federal penitentiary in Pensacola. There were no walls, fences, barred windows or guard towers. There are usually some 200 women from Tutwiler county jails and courts in this 9 month exit program. They live in cottage-like dorms, wear street clothes and roam freely around the premise of the facility from which they could walk away almost at will. It is rare, almost unheard of, for an inmate to walk away without leave to do so.

When these mostly young women gather in the auditorium for the program, they look like an ordinary group of high school or college students. A few look like soccer-moms, and even fewer, who have already spent lots of time "up the hill" at Tutwiler, could pass for young grandmothers. They look like most of the youth groups to which I speak, except they are much more orderly and attentive. After the program, I almost expect to see them go outside, get in their cars and go home. There are no walls, fences, barred windows or guard towers; and yet they stay within the confines of the facility. They seem to have a similar psychological mind set as the inmates at the federal penitentiary. All the conventional elements of confinement are in their mental perception of reality.

Admittedly, there are some differences in the situations of these two sets of inmates, but not many. The girls at Life Tech know they will be free to go home in 9 months. If they follow the rather lax rules in the Residential Handbook. The federal inmates also know they will be free in a few months or at least a few years, but a disturbingly high percentage of them will be back. This is the amazing difference: less than 5% of the inmates of Life Tech will be back. Almost 50% of the general prison population will be back in less than 3 years.

This return to criminal activity of persons previously convicted of crimes is called "recidivism" in our prison system. Reducing the recidivism rate (percentage of those who return to crime, once sentence has been served) can save large amounts of money required to operate and maintain the prison system. Every time an inmate returns to the system, it costs the State of Alabama about $25,000 each year. Every time an inmate DOES NOT return to the system, it not only saves the tax-payers some $25,000 each year, it also saves the former inmate's life, and the livelihood and well-being of his or her family - spouse, children and others whose lives are affected by having a family member in prison. And, those who do not return to the system usually have jobs and pay taxes.

I am not going to do the math on the cost of keeping 2.3 million people in some part of the prison system in our country or the cost of keeping some 100,000 in some aspect of the system in Alabama, but the figure is large. I recently read that we spend some 60 billion dollars each year building and maintaining prison, caring for the total needs of prisoners and operating a parole system.

Now, before any of you sensitive (perceptive) souls jump to the conclusion that the writer of this column thinks we can or should close down our criminal courts, jails and prisons, let me assure you this is not the case. Like you, I have no desire to live in a society where we have not systems for apprehending and confining people whose behaviors make them unfit to roam free in a civilized society. Thank God for the law-enforcement personnel, judges, parole officers and those who are the "keepers of the keys" in our jails and prisons for protecting us from thieves and criminals.

But, doesn't a program like Life Tech make a lost of sense as a legitimate part of our judicial, prison and parole system?!! Of course, not every prisoner qualifies for such programs, but the program makes sense as a part of our overburdened prison system, and as a part of our wish to redeem those who are redeemable and return them to society as productive citizens. This program enjoys the strong support of our Governor, Bob Riley; and the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the Honorable Sue Bell Cobb. This program is not the only answer to the needs of our judicial and prison and parole systems. No one thing is the answer to everything, but it looks good as a part of the solution.

I had intended the theme of this column to be psychological analysis of people both in and out of prison system who are confined by mental wall and fences and locked doors, but my enthusiasm about Life Tech as a redemptive part of our prison system got me distracted from my original intention. I will get back to my original idea. Stay tuned.