When Sorority Girls Schooled Me on America’s Broken Prison System

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Living facilities in California State Prison (July 19, 2006). Photo: California Department of Corrections
Living facilities in California State Prison (July 19, 2006). Photo: California Department of Corrections

It all started at a meet and greet with Brad Pitt.

I was volunteering with his organization, “Make it Right” in New Orleans with hundreds of other volunteers. We were trimming overgrown properties for families who hadn’t been able to return since Katrina. The city was taking advantage of their absence by slapping them with fines for the overgrowth.

Some of the other volunteers were sorority pledges from the University of Alabama. We started talking and they explained how their main cause back home was rehabilitation programs for former inmates. I’ll admit that I was baffled by this idea at the time. Why was their main concern criminals? Doesn’t the government take care of the reentry process? Anyway, I was really more interested in how Brad Pitt could be so much shorter in real life than in the movies.

I had a lot to learn.

The young women explained to me that people with criminal records who want to reintegrate into society are struggling because employers won’t hire them. There are people out there who want to reform but can’t get on their feet once released and end up back in the system. As of 2011, the recidivism rate (people returning to jail) for Maryland was over 40 percent.

Couple that with the fact that for years, mandatory minimum sentences have forced judges to extend sentences for drug crimes and removed their ability to vary the punishment by the context of the case. That has only recently been reversed in Maryland.

Multiply that by the fact that being nonviolent and behaving well in jail will not get you out on parole in the state of Maryland, even if you are eligible for it- because the governor is too busy to sign your paper.

The result is a highly incarcerated state, in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world!

This is a human rights crises and an economic drain on society. In Maryland our correctional spending has increased 1,101 percent from 1977-2001. We are paying exponentially to detain more and more people.

Then, rather than encouraging our willing ex-criminals in the rehabilitation process and integrating them into the regular work community, we are leaving them to flounder.

In Maryland, instead of releasing non-violent, well-behaved parolees, we are punishing them to a life sentence because we have not freed the governor from the banal task of signing them out.

The struggle even begins before people are sentenced. Nonviolent offenders who are NOT flight risks are being kept in jail for bond. This can go on for 72-hours at a time which is plenty of time for the offender to lose his or her job.

The cost is a pricey one for that family. One could argue, as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh intends to, that the person held was incarcerated for being poor, which is unconstitutional. In Anne Arundel County alone, about 8,000 people pass through the Jennifer Road Detention Center every year. Since that jail holds only 633 people at a time, the percentage of those jailed as pretrial detainees are in the majority.

This cost is a cost to the community too.

That individual was a working individual who is now unemployed. That individual was not held because he or she was deemed dangerous, and not held because he or she was deemed a flight risk. If that had been the case then bail wouldn’t have been offered.

That individual has kids who now don’t have a source of food due to mom’s or dad’s job loss. That individual is one that may even be innocent and was just held based on suspicion of a crime—and now is suffering for that time lost.

The sorority girls from Alabama wanted to change the broken system that cripples hard-working, non-violent Individuals who just want to begin again but are being handicapped at every turn. And thanks to their kind hearts and patience, I learned a lot more that day than just the stature of a handsome Hollywood movie star.

Rebecca Forte is a perpetual vagabond who is happy to settle down in Severna Park… for now.

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