The Importance of a Second Chance, by Marni Yang. Parole Illinois Essay-Contest First-Place Winner

The Importance of a Second Chance

Marni Young

It has been said that a society can be measured by the manner in which it treats the least of its citizens. With that in mind, the most marginalized portion of any society is arguably the prison inmate. No other demographic is afforded less consideration in terms of basic human rights, and less ability and resources to assert the few legal rights they retain. Illinois has one of the most archaic systems of corrections in the entire nation, with an abysmal track record in terms of treatment of its prisoners. The state has been referred to by many as nothing more than a “warehouse for human bodies”.

Former I.D.O.C. Director John Stalworthy in a 2016 conversation with the father of an offender at Logan Correctional Center, called the system “medieval”. Considering Stralworthy’s impressive resume, which includes the development and administration of corrections in Iraq, as well as an authoritative book on the subject, this is a powerful statement. In an even more significant context, he declared the Illinois prison system “unfixable”, and resigned from the position less than three months after being appointed.

The Mission Statement for the Illinois Department of Corrections states, “We will reduce recidivism by offering seamless, efficient services that are geared toward offender rehabilitation.” However, this statement is, in reality, nothing more than a transparent, thinly-veiled public relations stunt containing no veracity whatsoever. In true hypocritical fashion, I.D.OC. does the polar opposite. No other state suffers from such a dearth of programs and opportunities for its offenders. Two of I.D.O.C.’s main objectives in its efforts toward rehabilitation is the education of its offenders both in an academic capacity as well as in the development of a sense of responsibility. Yet I.D.O.C. fails miserably at both. The school system within I.D.O.C. is a colossal embarrassment which comes nowhere near meeting a minimum Illinois Board of Education standards. Further, those with long sentences are not eligible for educational programs. Of the nearly 2000 women incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center , only 200 (approximately) attend school. Of those enrolled in school, less than ten are long-timers or lifers.

Steady employment is a major factor in instilling a sense of responsibility in an offender, yet there are not nearly enough job opportunities for inmates within the individual facilities. With so few jobs available, the majority of the population sits around all day, everyday, rotting away with nothing to do. Not only does this situation run counter to I.D.O.C.’s mission statement, it serves to increase disciplining incidents, thereby increasing safety and security risks for both staff and other inmates. In other words, there are too many people sitting around with entirely too much time on their hands. This is inconsistent with I.D.O.C.’s promise to “value the well being of I.D.O.C. staff and offenders…”

Those hit the hardest by these dismal prospects are those with very long life sentences. For those of us who fall into this category, the situation becomes both a mental health and a human rights issue. The United States has been labeled the “incarceration nation”, locking up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. According to USA Today, the global average is .5%, while the U.S. incarcerates almost 1% of its people – double the world average. In most European countries, a “life sentence” means a maximum of 25 years. In other words, Europe recognizes that no one is irredeemable. In the U.S., however, there exists an inability to distinguish between probation and punitive sentencing for offenders, or to determine who presents a “danger to society” and who does not. Older inmates, and those who have been imprisoned for violent crimes and/or long periods of time do not become repeat offenders. Recidivism rates in Illinois are staggering 67%. However, the rate for those convicted of violent crimes, over the age of 50, who have served long sentences drops to just 2% for men and 1% for women.

Consider this logic. If someone commits a crime, that person is said to “owe a debt to society” and sent to prison, where the state and the taxpayers must then bear the burden of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and providing medical care for that offender – the cost of which increases exponentially as the offender ages. Does this not increase one’s “debt owed to society” rather than decrease it. If I.D.O.C. intended on keeping the resolutions in its Mission Statement, then it would be providing every opportunity for an offender to decrease that debt, and this goal can best be served by allowing the individual to achieve a meaningful purpose…to become a contributing member of society in some capacity which ameliorates the wrongdoing committed.

Statistics show that extremely long sentences and life terms do not lower violent crime rates, but a true commitment to rehabilitation does. I.D.O.C.’s counselors, who are often responsible for assisting with rehabilitation goals, are notoriously loathe to perform any useful function, and are generally uncooperative and even hostile toward inmates. Each offender, (according to the Mission Statement once again) should be individually assessed, a goal plan formulated, and every effort made to support and assist the offender in reaching those goals. (Currently, I.D.O.C. seems to take great satisfaction in doing just the opposite.) Part of this effort must include a complete revision of a system broken beyond repair, and part of that overhaul includes assessing terms of incarceration – who we keep locked up and for how long. Illinois is one of only two states in the entire country without a parole system. This is a direct result of the erroneous logic that only those convicted of nonviolent offenses can be rehabilitated. Time and time again, this fallacy in reasoning has been proven wrong. In fact, much of the time, it is the nonviolent offenders who carry the highest recidivism rates.

A Parole system in Illinois is necessary because parole is often the last remaining hope and opportunity for those who have exhausted all available remedies to prove that they have become worthy of release and can be an asset to their community.

If I.D.O.C.’s mission is truly offender rehabilitation, then this is a direct challenge to live up to that statement. When will Illinois stop the hypocrisy, and start putting its money where its mouth is?