Society would be better off to kill every one of us than do what they are doing now: keeping men and women in these hellholes for unrealistic periods of time. I’m not advocating this, because life is precious, but keeping people for years and years in this abnormal, loveless environment and then expecting them to cope with living in society is ridiculous. The majority of prisoners are set free some day. A man will control his rage in here because he has got a .30-.30 cocked at his head, but when you release him into society, you’re releasing a human explosive.
A British study has indicated that nine years is the maximum time a person can spend in prison without it causing him permanent physical or psychological harm, and I would agree with that. In the old days, all the prison system wanted out of you was to make you work till you dropped. The human body can take that, but now they have brought in psychologists and psychiatrists who do nothing but keep you locked up all the time, and keep you knocked out with drugs. I personally have never had prison psychologists prescribe me tranquilizers; in fact, I have filed numerous civil rights complaints seeking a ban on the use of such drugs except for mentally ill persons. But here there is nothing to keep a man’s mind occupied, and the monotony makes you worse when you leave than you were when you entered.
It would be better to do away with prisons altogether than to operate them this way. They are nothing but colleges for crime, violence and homosexuality. Every man in here believes he has been treated unfairly by the courts, so how can society expect him to respect the law when he gets out? One solution would be mandatory sentencing: make the punishment fit the crime and not the individual. If the ruling class wants to make a certain act a crime, then everyone convicted of it should receive the same punishment. All discretion should be taken away from the courts, the corrections people and the parole boards, because so long as they have discretionary power, the influential and the affluent will escape equal punishment.
The poorer and darker the offender is, the harsher his or her punishment will be. These people are the product of an oppressive environment which the state and federal governments permit to exist to maintain the dominance of the ruling, wealthy class. Prisons are simply an instrument of class and ethnic oppression designed to make poor and uneducated folks go along with the status quo. Imagine a prison system inhabited by people convicted of crimes peculiar to the affluent, such as price-fixing, buying political influence, violating minimum wage laws and safety standards, and you will see how distant this fantasy is from the prisons we have today.
Since it is obvious that we will have prisons for some years to come, I would suggest that they be run like a city. Free enterprise, that is, free industry, should be encouraged to come into the prison, and convicts should be paid the prevailing wage. Require us to pay room and board; require us to support our families; require us to compensate the victim; give us training in marketable skills. Allow us to bring our girlfriends, wives and children in here. The long prison sentences imposed on me have caused my wife to divorce me and cost me the loss of her love, and also that of my daughter. . . .
Make social services available on a a par with the free world. For instance, if we were earning a wage, we could pay a qualified doctor when we needed one. And we could maintain our dignity and pride. It is punishment enough just to deprive a person of his freedom, unless society just wants to put a bullet through our heads.
The key to keeping people from committing crimes is correcting the economic system that leaves unfulfilled the real and psychological needs of the poor class, and causes people to commit violent and sexual crimes. The next best deterrent is swift and sure justice, not the threat of unimaginable prison terms or the death penalty. I also believe that property crimes should be handled in civil courts and the offender required to make restitution.
Each judicial district should have a restitution center. Anyone who commits a crime where there is a property loss should fully compensate the victim, and possibly make double compensation. If this offender has a family and a job in the community, I think it would do more harm than good to take him away from his wife and family and put him in the restitution center, but he should be required to make restitution and come to the center for counseling. People without community roots should be housed in the center and be helped to locate a suitable job, make restitution and pay room and board. Georgia now has two victim restitution centers, and North Carolina has a small program of the same kind. Minnesota has for six years experimented with a program in which non-dangerous offenders with fewer than three convictions sign contracts with their victims and, after a brief stay in jail, begin working to make restitution. This type of program will work and should be expanded, rather than build more costly prisons.
The way things are now, not only does the victim lose his property, but he also must pay for the offender’s upkeep in prison, and this is big money now. The offender also becomes bitter and gets an education in how to commit every crime in the book.
Wayne Brooks, a 40-year-old native of Gaston County, North Carolina, and a US Coast Guard Veteran, has served 20 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC, and helped organize the NC Prisoners’ Union there in 1973. The Union disbanded after the Supreme Court upheld prison regulations forbidding the group to hold meetings and forbidding inmates from soliciting membership. (1978)