How do the citizens of Morgan County interact with the sheriff? How do the families of inmates interact with the sheriff? How do the elected officials interact with the sheriff? How do the MCSO employees interact with the sheriff?
Unfortunately, the sheriff has little to no interaction with the public, the employees of the sheriff’s office, or public officials unless the interaction is pushed on her.
When was the last time the sheriff walked through the front lobby of the sheriff’s office to interact with families of the inmates? How long has it been since Franklin took calls from family members of the inmates? Franklin has left all the talking to her so-called leaders. None of whom are leaders. If you have ever wondered what Berzett thinks of feeding and housing the inmates, you can hear it in his own words. As one potential employee said after an interview with Berzett for a kitchen position. The lady asked about the inmate food funds to determine the budget for feeding the inmates. Per the lady Berzett's comment was what does it matter? They are just inmates.
When heads roll at the sheriff’s office every so called leader will be fired. That is of course those who do not go to jail and subsequently to prison.
Franklin is apparently in the office today. We can only make this assumption because a vehicle is in her parking slot. It must be a struggle for her to finally come to work after years of being a no show sheriff. The sheriffs in Alabama have more power than most elected officials within the state. What do our sheriffs in Alabama have to lose in making changes and restructuring the business of housing and feeding inmates. There is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box. What can we learn from our foreign allies?
Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime
In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back.
But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications.
Twenty years after the 1994 federal Crime Bill led to an upsurge in prison construction and punitive tough-on-crime sentencing measures, our national conversation around crime and punishment has shifted significantly. It is bipartisan. It is occurring in Congress and statehouses. Energy for reform is focused primarily on reducing sentence lengths, narrowing the population that goes to prison, and better preparing those who are leaving for reintegration.
In addition to recommending policy changes that would limit rates of incarceration, the National Academies report also recommends improving the experience of incarceration and the harms associated with it — which extend beyond bars to the already suffering communities that prisoners and their families come from.
All of this brings us to an important meta-question taken up by the report: what is the role of incarceration at a time when how we incarcerate achieves little of what we know works to stop reoffending and create stronger people and stronger and safer communities?
For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us. Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.
Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release. There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements. And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.
Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home. The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe--and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily. With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities.
Can we re-imagine American prisons and their use? Yes. Pennsylvania is a system with some 51,000 inmates and 16,000 staff that reflects the racial disparities of the nation as a whole (one in every 58 black residents and one in every 129 Latino residents are incarcerated, compared to one in every 505 white residents). We have started to roll out "transitional units" in each facility for people within six months to a year of release, and we are piloting some of the normalization and reentry practices seen in Europe. We are also re-structuring our basic training for officers, emphasizing communications skills, motivational interviewing techniques, conflict resolution, and mental health first-aid training to begin to give officers the tools to be change agents. Vera and Pennsylvania are also working together to effectively and safely reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Approaches such as these can be implemented and tested in American prisons with a small cohort of the population or test piloted at different security levels. These pilots can be tied to incentive programs or units that may already exist.
Are there challenges to wholesale reform? Of course. Money. Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity. And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S. Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts. It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison. But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.
Nicholas Turner is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. John Wetzel is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.