I’ve always told anyone that would listen that everyone — EVERYONE — should experience prison life, not necessarily behind bars as an inmate, but by somehow “walking in those shoes” and trying to understand that no matter the why and how of incarceration the incarcerated should be treated with compassion. Not a roll-over-and-whimper type of “pity the poor inmate” liberalism, but the more clear-eyed view of that proposed by Dave Miller in his new self-published book Punishment Enough, which chronicles his years as a prison educator and as superintendent at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch.
During my three-plus years “in the joint” as a teacher and administrator for Marist and then Mercy College in the mid-1980’s, I knew of Dave Miller as an innovative education director at various prisons. The words “compassionate” and “realistic” — words not usually used together to describe anyone in corrections — were often used in describing Miller. And this is ten years before he, as superintendent, got to implement his profound notions of transforming the experience of incarceration at Eastern. Those years (1995-2005) are the ones chronicled in this “nuts-and-bolts” approach to how to run a prison, where punishment is not the raison d’etre of incarceration. Rehabilitation and even redemption are.
To quote Miller from his book: “I could have written a book about the violence which I have witnessed during my career. This violence involved the killing or injuring of staff and inmates. I could have described the lasting effects of being held hostage. I could have even revisited the bloody riot at Attica which left eleven hostages and 32 inmates dead, or told how a self-imposed inmate lock-in resulted in a 53-day standoff with fires, assaults on staff and the throwing of urine and feces. Instead, I wrote a book about accentuating the positive for inmates, the staff and the community surrounding the prison. Those readers who don’t think that inmates are entitled to fresh air, much less exemplary programs will be disappointed. The inmate programs which I describe cost little or no taxpayers dollars, but resulted in major behavioral changes…The behavior changes resulting from these programs not only made for a safer prison environment, but research has shown us they also reduced the rate of recidivism.”
Miller recognizes the politicization of corrections; the swing between the conservative approach of “just throw away the key” to the more progressive one of providing programs, especially college degree ones. “It’s an emotional issue that can be used as a political football and has been,” said Miller. “But the proof is in the statistics that show that the recidivism rate for inmate non-college participants is 40%; while those with a college degree is just 4%. But yet because of the politics of this, college programs have been cut. It makes little sense in the clear-eyed statistics of recidivism.”
Miller points to three issues that always will need remediation. “The treatment of the mentally ill in prison. The time of segregation from the general prison population. And the treatment of the young adults in the prison. We set up a community model at Eastern for our mentally ill prisoners, providing them with therapy and outlets in which to adjust to the rest of the population. And in the same way we have found that the longer time one spends in segregation the harder it becomes to rehabilitate him. The same for our young adults. Should they be segregated from the older inmates? A key word is adjustment. Ex-inmates in this book tell what it was like to spend 20-25 years behind bars and how they dealt with the lack of privacy, their loss of identity and the fact that they couldn’t leave. How did they prevent themselves from becoming more bitter and more intertwined in a criminal lifestyle? How did they go about winning their freedom and being able to convince the Parole Board that they were remorseful for the crimes they had committed? How did they convince the board they had changed to the point where they were ready to re-enter society without falling back into a criminal lifestyle? Finally, how did they go about transitioning back into a world that they had left 25 years before? Can they ever adjust and what are the factors that helped them do so?”
So, Punishment Enough is a story of vision. How that notion of thinking “outside the box” (to use the common parlance) can transform prison-life from a punitive experience into not only a remedial one, but possibly one of even redemption. “The programs and philosophy at Eastern emphasized the common humanity of staff and inmates alike, and the benefits of this enlightened approach were reaped by many,” said Miller.
Miller will be joined by ex-Eastern inmate Lou Mortillaro and theater teacher Nancy Owen, both of whom wrote about the programs at Eastern in Punishment Enough, in a reading at Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz on Tuesday, June 10 at 7 p.m.