When is a human being not a human being? After they commit a crime, and we send them to prison.
Then we treat them abominably and tell the world that prisons are about rehabilitation. Anyone who’s volunteered in prisons knows only too well that whenever state funds are cut, prisons are most probably the first to be affected — not only in terms of what is given to inmates, but in terms of salaries provided for those who work there.
Because so few people care about those who are imprisoned, we don’t even notice the funding cuts. We notice when our roads become bad; we notice when school funding is cut and classroom size is increased; we notice when our sales taxes are increased. But who notices what happens behind the razor wire fences that surround our prisons?
Kansas does virtually nothing to help those in prison turn their lives around. Yes, those who are imprisoned made a choice somewhere along the way to commit a crime, and while there may be little justification for those choices, there’s little justification for citizens to turn their backs on those who suffer hardships almost from the day they’re born.
When parents are absent from homes — either physically, emotionally or because of a variety of circumstances — children suffer. And many of those suffering children end up in prison because committing crimes is the only thing they know to do to survive. They grow up with little more than fear and violence in their lives, and we then wonder why they commit crimes.
But if we’re really wanting to rehabilitate these men and women, the first thing we need to do is give them some tools so that when they return to society — as more than 85 percent of them will do — they have an opportunity to be employed. Without at least a high school diploma or the equivalency, that’s virtually impossible.
But more than basic educational programs are needed. There was a time when inmates could use Pell Grants to continue their education; those have been eliminated. It appears the rationale is that we shouldn’t give any unnecessary benefits to those who are incarcerated. So what if statistics show that education is one of the benefits that reaps significant rewards — by keeping released prisoners from returning to prison.
Despite what the Department of Corrections says to the general public, most everything the state provides is only done for those who are on their way out of prison; it allows them to say: look what we’re doing for those who are imprisoned. When, if fact, almost nothing is done to help those who will spend years in prison.
Prisons are a recession-proof industry; that’s why we build so many of them. But if we spent the same funds on early childhood education that we spend operating prisons, we’d have fewer prisons and a much healthier society. Meanwhile, the Legislature has cut early childhood funding to the bone.
I wish something I had to say about prisons that could move voters to vote for more moderate, caring voices in the Kansas Legislature but I doubt it. Truth is, few people care about prisoners. And it is to society’s detriment.
The Rev. Janet Weiblen of Merriam is an ordained minister (M.Div) in the United Church of Christ who also has full standing in the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ. She has volunteered in prisons since 1992, including the past 10 years at the Lansing Correctional Facility’s maximum security unit. She is the lead sponsor of Reaching Out from Within, a prisoner organization dedicated to anti-violence.