Author, Expert & Speaker

What Does Prison Reform MeanWhat does prison reform mean to you? What does it mean to your friends, the general public, issue-aware people, and inmates? The connotations are fluid and depend on the depth of knowledge or caring a person has about why prison reform is an imperative.

There are several categories of people who have strong, visceral feelings about what prison reform should look like. The categories span a broad spectrum of perspectives associated with reforming prisons. Here are four:


Category One: Detached

You can tell a detached person by his or her callousness: “Let ‘em rot in prison; who cares?” The detached ones are turned off by the subject or simply don’t care. An interest in prison reform can surface because of unforeseeable circumstances such as the incarceration of someone a detached person loves or cares about. Personally spending a few days in county jail for drunk driving can also awaken detached folk. Thousands of people are impacted indirectly by the incarceration of another, and the detached point of view can change much like we see with lawmakers and policymakers. Even Dick Cheney came out in support of his lesbian daughter, Mary, after her recent marriage to a woman named Heather. Referring to a relationship he otherwise would have shunned, as saying “Mary and Heather and their children are very important and much loved members of our family and we wish them every happiness.”

Here are other points of view of the detached:

  • We have homeless adults and children living in the streets while prisoners are fed and housed.
  • What will prison reform cost taxpayers?
  • I’m not interested in the topic.


Category Two: Ill-Informed and Content

The ill-informed and content person knows prisons are overcrowded and don’t provide good healthcare but rationalize that the courts and state government are handling the problem. These people don’t know specifics about any state’s prison system. They seem to be unaware that the torturous conditions can exist for years before the courts take any action at all. Did they know, for example, what reports concerning Alabama prisons? “Prior to the new law, Alabama faced a crisis: State prisons had reached extreme levels of overcrowding, operating at 195 percent of capacity. Years of avoiding the issue came to a head in 2014, when the federal government threatened to intervene.”

Ill-informed contents will point out that Obama releases inmates early (only from federal prisons) and mention the successful vote to kill the three-strikes law in California—but they have a naïve perception that prison reform is happening and “it just takes time.” They are content to let change be brought about by the system and its processes.


Category Three: Vicariously Exposed

These people have had experience with prison through someone they love or care about. Detached and ill-informed content people can become vicariously exposed people, depending on circumstances.

Before I went to prison, my parents were in category one—detached. There was no reason for them to be otherwise. Prison conditions did not hit home.

Before I went to prison, my sister and brother-in-law were in the category two range—although they were more informed and less content than most people in this category. Activists all their lives, Bobbi and Steve now have a knee-jerk reaction to prison situations, knowing that I lived through some bad ones myself. Steve now tells me that whenever some prison issue is raised in conversation, conferences, or the media, he automatically thinks about me. My experiences put a face on prison reform issues; they are no longer abstract concepts.

Vicariously exposed people will often be in touch with an inmate through letters, calls, and visits. Other vicarious exposure traits include the following:

  • A desire to learn more about the politics behind current prison conditions
  • A humanistic view of how overcrowding can harm people
  • A realistic view of how prison is punitive and not rehabilitative
  • An awareness of prison reform–themed books, literature, movies, and plays


Category Four: Current and Past Inmates

Current and past inmates have been there, done that. They live or lived in conditions that would shock anyone with a modicum of human compassion. Many men I shared life with in the California prison system needed to be there, and I hope many of them still are locked up. As I have written in an earlier blog: “There are crazy people in prison.” Inmates’ mental health issues and drug dependency problems are overwhelming the capacity of trained and experienced mental health practitioners employed by the California Department of Correction & Rehabilitation. However, this does not negate the need for reforms now.

Here’s what current and past inmates’ understanding of what prison reform means:

  • Any governmental or administrative action that will result in an earlier release date
  • Reduction of overcrowded living conditions
  • Better healthcare
  • Improved food conditions, including calories and size of portions
  • Rehabilitation from drug addiction
  • Job placement
  • Control of gang influences on the yards
  • Stimulating, instructional, and entertaining programs to replace boredom

There are many more categories of individuals with opinions about what prison reform means.

What does the term mean to prison administrators and guards? What does it mean to judges, criminal defense attorneys, and those harmed by crimes?

What category are you in? What category that describes prison reform from your point of view?


Photo: Martin Haas/


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