More walls, more bars and more guards won’t resolve prison overcrowding in Maine the way changing release policies – especially reinstituing parole – could.

Recent revelations concerning Maine’s prison overcrowding problem have opened the doors to educating taxpayers about the system, while allowing consideration for short and long-term solutions.

People who have never been locked up, and don’t know anyone who has been, may have a skewed perception of what it’s all about. If corrections were a free market product, it would be very unpopular, much like an automobile that gets three miles to the gallon.

Who is to blame for this overcrowding problem is debatable, but one thing is certain: unless lawmakers take a progressive approach, it will only get worse.

One problem is that there isn’t a lot of “correcting” going on inside the Maine Department of Corrections. This leads to offenders repeating this experience again and again, which may bode well for corrections employees and suppliers of the system, but not so much for taxpayers.

A percentage of inmates learn early this is no way to live, but many could use what I’ll call more “encouragement” to realize that same thing. Mandatory social skills groups and human relations classes would be a giant step twards reducing recidivism. A boot camp atmosphere for those who can’t grasp such concepts would help, as would face-to-face meetings with willing victims.

The current system is a warehousing operation, overwhelmed by sheer numbers and presumably underfunded and unable to accommodate these types of programs. The system also holds a number of inmates who, despite the time remaining on their sentences, could function in society right now. They are an ignored group, as these people represent a valuable resource: manpower.

This group could be the key to changing the way Maine does its business of corrections.

Once the justice system sentences a person, he or she is turned over to the MDOC. There they are held until death, or the end of their sentence. There are no mechanisms in place to trigger the release of a prisoner, even if the goal of rehabilitation occurs before one of these two things happen.

Corrections also drives little, if any, revenue to sustain itself. Tax dollars fund it almost completely, whether the results end up benefiting society or bleeding it.

What if qualified inmates were released into society under certain conditions? A monitoring fee could be assessed, like the one used by probation. Another reasonable fee could be charged to fund programs that are lacking on the inside, at the same time taking the pressure off the taxpayers.

And finally, mandatory volunteerism could be used to benefit the community in which the inmate lives. The wasted resource of manpower, then, could be used to assist many organizations that need it, thus creating an actual payment of debt to society.

The way to implement these ideas would be to revisit the issue of parole in Maine, which was abolished in 1976. Building more prisons, shipping inmates out of state or giving release with stricter probation conditions just allows the problem to grow.

Mental illness issues, and those who live better inside prison also need attention. Fifty dollars, a handshake and a trip to the homeless shelter hardly inspires hope.

Cutting recidivism unburdens society in many ways, and paying a debt to society is more productive than idle time. Rehabilitation, with parole and debt payment in mind, is much better than three miles to the gallon.

People should be interested in this as much as school district consolidation, but inmates don’t stir the same feelings as students. Maybe they should.

After all, it’s your dime.

Michael Johnson is an inmate of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.


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