Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Monday, 22 FEB 2016 :: Reaching Inmates With Information

There are so many problems with our prison systems I can't solve, but I have thought about ways to make them better for inmates and our country.  I believe I have already shared how I would like to see INTERNET SALES bring income to both inmate and prison budgets.  It could change lives forever.  This blog, however, is about getting INFORMATION to inmates and their families.

I began to discover our penal systems when my sons became involved with drugs as teens, discovering it with the view of a parent and from the perspective of poverty.  People in poverty experience the world of prisons in a different way than those who can afford their own lawyers or hide their drug use inside cars or houses. Wealthy people don't have to resort to crimes to support their habits either.  These are just some of the reasons there are more poor people in prisons than those who have money.

I haven't searched for statistics to back up my claims, these statements come partly from my experiences and partly from things I have read and seen over the years.  Being the parent of someone in prison is a frightening experience.  There is nothing you can do to help them.  You have to focus your mind on anything besides the dangers of prison life :: gang issues, violence, sexual attacks.  You are always worried your child is suffering things they don't deserve, or becoming something worse than what they were when they went in, or going to die.  In prison, protecting yourself becomes a crime, increases your time in prison, and increases the problems being faced or overcome. 

Prison is such a hard place to experience as a family.
Like poverty, if you remain in it too long, it just makes things worse. 

Another problem I discovered in my years of struggle was how to keep that time in prison from becoming a total waste of life.  In my poverty, in my learning status, looking for a way through this challenge as a parent wanting to help their child, opportunities became difficult to find. 
  • You discover the high costs of visiting, if you can even reach the place your loved one is at.
  • Letters, photos, and copies of articles from different sources become the main vehicle to share the world with your inmate. 
  • Stretching your budget is a monthly challenge when you try to send them some level of cash for things they need or want, things not provided by the institution. 
  • You learn that shoes become an essential possession because they tell everyone else in prison there is someone on the outside that cares about them.
  • You find out how little money is earned by inmates that have jobs, and how hard it can be to get and keep them.  
  • If you can afford them, magazine subscriptions and books sent from approved vendors become your gift selections.  Newspaper subscriptions would be nice, but they are very expensive, too expensive for poor families.
  • Mail-order education is not paper and pen and stamped envelopes anymore... finding affordable alternatives was impossible for me.
  • In the middle of your difficult struggles, you discover all of this effort can be a wasted when your inmate is moved around the system.  Their belongings get "lost" so they have to start over at the new prison; there isn't mail forwarding so their subscriptions get "lost" even if they have only received one issue; your letters get returned; your undelivered orders get returned...
Information, keeping up with the world, focusing on positive opportunities -- these became my goal for my sons and I knew there had to be others who wanted the same things.  Information that mattered to the lives of inmates and their families seemed to be the easiest road to change, like education in small doses. 

My journey to bring this information into prisons began with the desire to know more of what my sons were doing in the places they were living in.  How to connect my desire to know more with the restrictions within prison systems made me think the solution would need to be internal, within the prison.

I started my effort by suggesting the Oregon prison system organize one or more inmate teams to create weekly subscription-based newsletters for family and friends of inmates.  Paid by quarters to make the cost affordable for low-income families and because of the prison practice of frequent moves, I thought it would pay for itself, provide wages for the inmates, and bring the world into prisons through news resources and the reporting process.  It could improve the education, intelligence, and perspectives of those inmates who were involved in creating it, and those reading it.  For continuity I suggested building a team with both lifers and other medium- and short-term inmates.  I even thought it could be published in small scale, within each separated prison building if possible, to expand the benefits I saw it having.  I never heard back from the Department of Corrections, and haven't heard of this being accomplished...yet.

Then I tried to think of something I could do in my retirement, on my own.  I called it "Letters to Inmates" and felt it would be like sharing the same letter with all those who subscribed (on their own or as gifts from others).  With a subscription base, it could be possible, too.

In the process of searching for answers, I added PRISONS to my Working Together programs and envisioned a global reach someday.  I discovered that some prisons in other countries are worse than any I have heard about in the US, even though news reports tell us we have more inmates than other countries.  I suspect there is something wrong with this claim.  In looking at world prisons, I wonder if it seems we have more inmates because other countries kill anyone they want to.  I have also seen prison documentaries on PBS that show entire families being in prison, children with their parents, usually their mother.  Prisons are a huge global challenge.

The information aspect of any Working Together outreach to prisons would required a printed newsletter for inmates, but online and email options might be achievable for friends and family.  INMATE NEWS was born to meet these needs. 

What is the dream for changing prisons with information?  Sharing what is currently being done within each state from the inmate perspective, creating a place where inmates can share ideas and opinions with each other, restricting advertising to programs and organizations that help inmates and their families, offer ways inmates can earn money for their needs.  Inmates need to know how technology is changing criminal arrests.

Reaching inmate populations is the real problem.  They seem to be a protected population, kept apart from the rest of the world. 
You can't buy an inmate mailing list
from the Department of Corrections.
I'm not sure if this separation from the world is to protect them, the public, or someone else.  Inmates become locked in the system, they become forgotten people.  Some have absolutely no one to care about them, send them a letter, buy them a birthday gift, give them money for everyday needs not provided otherwise, or anything else.  Their only "friends" become other inmates... which are not always healthy relationships, and their time in prison can be multiple years to decades.

It seems to me this lack of outside influence needs to be changed.