Lock Down:How distance makes the healing harder

On Exclusion: The Unanticipated Costs of Putting Prisons in the Middle of Nowhere

On Exclusion: The Unanticipated Costs of Putting Prisons in the Middle of Nowhere

In Indivisible, I tell part of my own story, on what happens when a parent is lost to murder, and how I eventually ended up working with a community organization in San Quentin prison, and staring down my own prejudices about crime, violence and separation.  Below is an excerpt from the book, followed by supplemental content with current data on the problem.


“Prisons have many  goals: to punish those who have harmed others or society (punitive); to lock up unsafe people and keep them off the streets (defensive); and to re-train and restore people who have acted against the law to a healthy role in society (rehabilitative).  Yet, the highest and best use of a prison—to put people into a secure container where they can learn new behaviors, change patterns and then return to society safer—is seldom achieved.

Prisons are rooted in disconnection, designed to isolate and remove people from both society and each another. We remove people who we think are a danger to mainstream society to “do their time,” and then we return them to society; but they still bear the legacy of being excluded, and they are not only unhealed, but often they are more dangerous.  These facilities are are packed with people holding memories of their own crimes, and years of rejection from mainstream society. There is an endless dance of control and violence in word, thought and deed. In many cases, when people are locked up, they get even more violent and embedded in criminal activity.

To make things worse, more prisons are being commissioned away from communities (where volunteer organizations can serve them effectively, and where people can visit easily, so that prisoners have connection to the outside world) .  Prisons are built in remote areas in the name of “job creation,” making the aims of a restorative justice program even more difficult to achieve.”

Lobbying groups, economic development groups and unions have successfully lobbied to put prisons in increasingly remote locations.  While there may be initial economic benefits in land acquisition, taxes, and labor, the physical distance has a tremendous cost to individual inmates, their families, and society.  If we want to return healthier citizens, capable of living and integrating into regular society, we need to reexamine this policy.

GRIP at Avenal
When the GRIP facilitators head to Avenal, it’s an overnight trip.
Community Service in Remote Prisons
When prisons are put in remote places, it decreases the likelihood that people will show up to serve. These pictures show the location of the nearest motel, we’re reviewing homework, waiting to go into the facility the next morning.

Community Group Participation:  San Quentin, located on the San Francisco Bay,  has over 80 community organizations providing services for free. Avenal, far from any population center, has three.  THREE, for what once was the largest single prison in the country.  When we do programs in Avenal, we have to drive down the night before and stay in a truck stop motel.  It’s a high tax for volunteerism, although the rewards are great. The question is, how many more people would help if the distance weren’t so great?  It’s also causes challenges in program design.  Most of the groups meet once a week, for shorter periods.  The farther away the facility, the less frequent and longer the work sessions- this reduces group bonding speed, required for trust, and the kind of deep transformation work the programs invite.

Distance Impact on Family Visits and Communication:  A phenomenal study from PPI shows that family visits are the number one way to reduce recidivism, but look what distance does to visits.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015
Source: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015

The surest way to keep people caring about coming out healthy and ready to be reintegrated into the community, is for them to feel like the community cares about them and will welcome them back.  

Without visits or services, this can’t happen.  To stop the cycles of violence, we need to rethink how we treat our citizens who are enmeshed in them, beginning with inclusion and proximity.


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