Scared.  That’s how I would describe my first few weeks there.  This was a job different from anything I had ever done, in a place different from anywhere I had ever been.  The people here were dangerous, proven so beyond the shadow of a doubt by a jury of their peers.  And here I was, all alone with 20 of them at a time, trying to not let my fear show.

Not a lot of people know that I worked in a prison.  It was for six months, full-time, and it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.  That old saying that “prison changes you” isn’t just true for the inmates.  I think that anyone who spends any time there cannot help but be changed.  It is just so different, and requires so much vigilance.  Truly, things like safety and security are on your mind constantly.  It is a dangerous job in a dangerous place.

My job was to teach a group of 20 inmates full-stack web design and development.  It was a one-year, community college certificate program where we would cover web design to front-end development, to video editing, to Flash.  It was a heavy program, a heavy program taught to an unbelievably diverse group of humans.  Some of my students had Master’s degrees (plural), some had never used a computer.  The average student had dropped out of the 9th or 10th grade.  Some had been “inside” so long as to have never even seen the Internet.  There’s a challenge for you, try to teach web design to someone who has never seen a website.

My reasons for being there were myriad.  In hindsight, I was pretty foolish.  But like a lot of things, if I wasn’t so naïve, I would never have tried it.  Looking back, I am sure glad I did.

Before my job interview, I had never even been in a prison before.  I had all sorts of fanciful notions of what I was doing there, and the social good I was after.  These naïve fantasies were dispensed with, one at a time, over the coming months of actually being there, seven hours a day, five days a week.

When I started teaching I had 20 students per class, two classes a day.  Of the 20 students per class, typically about 12-14 were classified as “HV”.  I used to wonder what that even meant, seeing it on paperwork all the time.  I even asked one of the other instructors what it meant, and she had no idea.  So, I looked it up on my own, and the answer made my stomach drop.

“HV” stands for “High Violent”.  “High” because, statistically I assume, the likelihood to reoffend was high.  “Violent” because the crimes they were incarcerated for were violent ones.  Listening to modern media outlets, one would think that most prisoners were there on drug charges due to minimum sentencing requirements.  In a federal prison, perhaps, but in the prison I worked in, the majority of inmates were violent criminals.

I came out of this job a very different person than I was when I went in.  For one thing, my confidence got a serious boost.  When you have the experience of spending a lot of time around 20 very scary people, scary people who have shown not only the capability to commit violent crimes, but also the capacity, you cannot help but be changed.  And for me, knowing that I could be around 20 of these guys, alone, and still keep my shit together, was a big deal.  Frankly, there is really not a lot to be scared of in life after you aren’t scared of that.

I am very thankful that when I left my prison job, I left with my humanity still intact. Prison can be a pretty inhuman environment, out of necessity.  You witness humanity at its lowest, but you also can witness humanity at its highest.

One day when I was leaving work with a co-worker, it had been snowing, hard.  Our walk from our building to the front gate was about 120 yards or so, over winding sidewalks, through a courtyard.  My co-worker, who is disabled, uses a scooter to cover this large of a distance.

There was about four inches of fresh snow on the ground, and the wheels on her scooter were only about five inches.  The “snow crew” (the group of inmates that shovels all the snow) were out, tending to the sidewalks on the other side of the courtyard from us.

When we left our building, it was clear we would have a tough time.  Nothing had been shoveled over where we were, and getting her scooter stuck was a real concern.  We chatted about it for a moment, and when I looked up, an inmate had come over and immediately started shoveling a trail for her.  He didn’t say anything, he just did it.  And he did this all the way to the front gate, some 120 yards.  He didn’t have to, he wasn’t even asked to.

I can only speculate why he did what he did.  After all, there was nothing in it for him.  The prison actually removed the program where you could report a good thing an inmate did.  You can report all of the bad things they do, which gets used all the time.  But when I actually asked the Sergeant who works our shift (the Sergeant is sort of like the foreman of that shift of guards, whereas the lieutenant is the boss) if there was anything I could do to report what this inmate had done, to at least go in his personal file or something, I was surprised by the answer.  Nope, NSP, no such program.

So, one would have to wonder, why did he do it?  My guess is that the inmate did this because even though he was in this inhuman place, nothing could take all of his humanity from him.  That even though he had committed the crime he had committed, and he lived in this place, he could still be a complete human and have a real human experience with another person.

Of course, that might be all hogwash and poppycock.  Naivety is punished, directly and indirectly, in a place like a prison.  For all I know, he was trying to impress the guard who was watching him.  Or, he needed to get away from the inmates he was working with, and this was a convenient way to do it.  Humans are complicated animals, and I would not dare say that I possess any real accuracy in trying to predict what he thinks or feels about anything.  But, selfishly, I like my theory, so I stick with it as a possibility.

The experience of working in this prison truly was a transformative one, especially when looking at what these places, these prisons, actually do.  That is, their stated mission is to rehabilitate, and in the prison I worked in, there were countless people who were clearly dedicated to this goal.  But in my opinion, I think it’s important to really think about this issue.  That is, is rehabilitation, on a large scale, even reasonable to expect?  Is it even possible?  Are prisons dealing with such overwhelming odds because the task they engage in is so complex, and so many things are stacked against them?  Possibly so, but I believe there are things we could do to not only assist these prisons in their work, but also send less people there (by sending fewer people back there).

Here are my thoughts about another way we can think about this problem.

First, A Little Background

So, what are we talking about here?  Recidivism is a big problem.  Currently, in my state (Washington), the recidivism rate is about 32%.  Nationally, it’s about 60%.  That’s a lot.  Even in my state, where rates are fairly low, one out of three released inmates will be back within three years.  And, when you are just recycling your released inmates back into the prison population later, you are creating a lot of growth.

Here’s what I mean by that.  Let’s say you have 1,000 prisoners in your prison.  Each year, you release 100 prisoners.  So, in any given year, you have room for 100 “new” prisoners.

But hold on a second.  In any given year, a percentage of your released prisoners are coming back.  So, you don’t have room for a 100 new criminals, you only have room for less then that, possibly far less.  But, if you have 100 new criminals, or more if crimes/arrests are rising, where do you put these people?  Well, you have to build new prisons.  You have to build new prisons because you are basically building permanent housing for the equivalent of a portion of your population.  You run out of room because a percentage of your population comes back, sometimes again and again.  Overall, not necessarily the same people mind you, but a percentage of the total.

The fact of the matter is, this is a big problem.  If our goal is truly to get people in this system out of it, forever, then we need to do something different.

The Real Work

I had a couple of inmates I worked with get released during the time I was there.  It was an amazing experience to witness second-hand.  One inmate in particular had been there for 14 years.  Imagine how much the world has changed in 14 years.  Now imagine trying to rejoin it with not only that gap in experience, but also having a serious felony on your record.  Indeed, prison has a chilling effect, sometimes long after someone walks out the front gates.

Now, I am not here to debate the justice of this.  Clearly, some people believe “these people” deserve all of the pain and torment they get, and then some.  I am not trying to debate these people, nor agree with them.  What I am saying is that in order to think about recidivism we need to think about what “these people” are dealing with, what they must struggle through in order to be successful, and how we, as a society, can make this no harder than it needs to be.  After all, if we are serious about rehabilitation, we need to make rehabilitation the logical conclusion to an incarceration (instead of, in many cases, an unlikely hope).

Jobs and Housing Are The Keys

Before an inmate is released, they have to find housing, especially if they are released early.  As you can imagine, this can be difficult.  Release programs vary as to what kind of housing, but, obviously, when they get out of prison, these women and men have to go somewhere.  That’s the first big hurdle, finding somewhere to go.

I totally get not wanting to have a convicted felon live next door to you.  That’s scary, especially if you have current data on recidivism rates.  But, the fact remains that the basis for a successful life is having reasonable and stable housing, and in order to have a fighting chance at rehabilitation, stability in this foundation is needed.

The second thing you need when you get out of prison is a job.  As you can also imagine, this is tough too.  Sort of a 1-2 punch straight out of the gate, two very difficult impediments to the result we are all hoping for.  As such, I imagine what typically happens is that former inmates end up living in housing that is priced higher than normal, and having a job that pays less than normal, perhaps because they are doing something they are over-qualified for.  There’s punch 3-4.

So, if you are lucky enough to find decent housing, and a decent job, you are still being punished.  Not directly, just by the market.  And, these effects can be profound and long lasting.  I would imagine that these secondary, market effects could have even a more lasting effect than the direct effect of being in prison.

Henry Ford Was a Genius

So, if shoehorning former inmates into the normal population does not seem to work out very well, for anyone, what should we do?  Well, I would advocate that we think about the problem differently.

It turns out, to my way of thinking anyway, that we have actually had a similar circumstance happen once.  That is, back when people were leaving farming to go to the city, there was an abundance of low-skill workers available.  And that isn’t a dig on these workers; it is just a way to think of them in comparison to a modern economy.  And, one of the people most famous for seizing this abundance, and turning it into an opportunity, was Henry Ford.

The brilliance of the assembly line was that you could break a complicated process down into individual, simple pieces.  This way, people with little training and experience could do the individual pieces.  Gone were the days when you needed a craftsman to build something.  Now, what you needed were just a lot of people, and with enough people, building things could be broken down enough to take advantage of this resource, which made it, overall, a win/win (sure, I know the relations between labor and management weren’t all puppy kisses and chocolate bars, but for the sake of this example, let’s just agree that this was a good thing, a good thing that really grew a true middle class).

In our circumstance, with millions of former inmates out there, we have this sort of abundance.  We have an abundance of low-skill workers, workers who need jobs, and housing, and whose future may very well rest on whether they are able to get those two things right.

We Can Do It Again

One thing I would like to see, similarly to a whole lot of other people I am sure, is more of our stuff made here, in the USA.  Sure, I have heard the major arguments for globalization, and I agree with the spirit behind looking for efficiencies.  However, I would also argue that outsourcing our manufacturing capacity, as a nation, has been a net loss.  This isn’t an argument based on nationalism, or xenophobia.  It just seems like a country that is less dependent on other countries for the things we all require in our lives is better off.  Maybe that’s just me.  Moving on.

Anyhow, what if there was a national appetite for reinvigorating domestic manufacturing?  If there was, one of the ways you could do it would be to utilize this resource, these former inmates.  We are currently in the beginning parts of a domestic energy boom, what if we could also create a domestic manufacturing boom?

Of course, it is not that simple, nothing is.  First off, modern manufacturing uses far fewer people than it used to.  But, so what?  And, if more and more of the process was automated, wouldn’t that make low-skill workers the perfect fit?

But we still haven’t solved the housing problem.  If these workers even have the manufacturing jobs, would they pay enough for the workers to afford housing?  Or, could the workers even find housing close enough to their work to make it practical?  Well that is where the next part kicks in.

Military Bases to the Rescue

Now, I don’t think it is provocative to say that our military will probably be scaled back in the coming years.  One would think that is has to be, for a bunch of reasons.   Of course, world events, or even whoever is elected president next could change that.  But, with all things being equal, this just seems to be something that will probably happen.

Getting back to our story, what I imagine as a solution to the housing issue is to integrate it with the job issue.  That is, create manufacturing centers with housing onsite.  Solve both problems at once, offer good, modern, necessary jobs with affordable, convenient housing.

Of course, that is massively oversimplified.  For a plan like that to work, the housing element would probably have to be highly nuanced.  For one thing, you would want to only loosely affiliate it with work (not make it a requirement to work there to live there, or vice versa).  You would also need to make sure it does not turn into a slum, and is properly maintained.

Also, and this is a big also, you would probably need some sort of staff to keep the peace.  Now, maybe this is just my prejudice talking, but it just seems that putting a high concentration of former inmates together might be something that needs a little extra oversight and planning.

But, I have to believe something like this could work.  You could take an abundant resource of low-skill workers, help them solve their housing problem, and (ideally) everyone wins.  Of course, the reality of this would be super-complicated, but I do believe something like this has at least the possibility of working.

So, where do you actually do this, where could you have manufacturing and housing on the same site?  Well, how about abandoned military bases?  If the military is downsized, and more bases are closed, what about using the former bases?  At the very least, it would be the utilization of areas that can be hard to do anything else with, and it would offer some amount of physical space separation from cities and suburbs to keep the public safety folks happy.

But it doesn’t have to be bases.  Pretty much all you need is a manufacturing facility with an apartment complex next door.  We are good at building both of those (and, actually, many of these have sprung up together naturally all over the country).

This would clearly be a large-scale project, but this sort of thing is what large-scale projects are good at, concentrating resources.  By putting all of this low-skill manpower in one-place, it can be used in a countless number of ways, truly only constrained by the creativity of the market.   As an example, no one really knew what to do with electricity before lots and lots of homes were being wired for it.  I think we can all agree that the market has had plenty of ideas how to utilize that resource.  Same goes for The Internet, the Interstate System, you get the idea.

But Aren’t You Just Recreating Prisons on the Outside?

By building this sort of homogenous environment, one could argue that these former inmates are not really being re-assimilated into society.  They are entering a fake society that is not really representative of the real world.  Plus, what happens if these people lose their jobs, what then?

First off, it is true that this sort of situation would have a diversity problem.  But, when no one wants a large group of former inmates in their neighborhood, what do you do?  Personally, I think it is better to work with societal constraints, rather than just live in denial of them and watch your plans fail.   Perhaps, someday, something like this could work in the middle of a city.  But for now, this still seems like the best option to please the most people.  Plus, by isolating this sort of population, you break effects that could come from having them back in their old neighborhoods, with their old friends.

Second, while working at this facility, these workers would be trained in modern manufacturing.  I would have to believe that if these workers could do modern manufacturing, other workers/companies would as well.  And, by using this resource, an industry could flourish, and if that happens, these workers would have options outside of this one employer.  Sure, it would be difficult, but now at least they would have experience, which is probably the main thing employers are looking for with these sorts of jobs.

In fact, you could take this one step further.  You could begin training for these jobs before the inmates leave prison.  This way, you could find the right people for certain jobs, you could provide a valuable education program for the prison, and you could hit the ground running with these workers upon their release.

It’s true, not every inmate, or even most inmates, would be a fit for this program.  But, with a pool of millions, you would have to think that you could utilize at least a healthy percentage of this resource somehow.

Not a Panacea, But That Shouldn’t Stop Us

It’s true, that no matter what we do, a certain percentage of inmates will end up back in prison.  What I would ask, though, is what actually is that certain percentage?  I would argue it definitely isn’t the 60% we see now (nationally), or even the 32% we see in my state.   And, since the way recidivism works is sort of like compound interest, the more we can reduce the rate, the bigger the impact will be over time.

The bottom line of this idea is that if you solve those two big problems for former inmates, jobs and housing, you can probably make a serous impact on recidivism as well.  Perhaps my solutions are naïve, but if you can fix these two problems, you not only improve the lives of the former inmates themselves, but you provide a social good, something that is good for everyone.  With recidivism rates that are as high as they are now, with record number of people being locked up in the US, this is a big problem, a problem that deserves a real solution.

About the author

With interests in things ranging from entrepreneurialism, to technology, to data-driven, evidence-based solutions for societal issues, I write about a variety of topics, and some of the ideas are pretty big ones. Thanks for reading, I’m glad you’re here.