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Editorial by PLN Assoc. Editor Alex Friedmann: "Give prisoners key resources"

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2009.
Editorial by PLN Assoc. Editor Alex Friedmann: "Give prisoners key resources" - Tennessean 2009

August 19, 2009 - Tennessean

Give prisoners key resources

By Alex Friedmann

Other Views

The efforts by the Tennessee Department of Correction and Board of Probation and Parole to reduce the state's prison population by 3,000 will be welcome news for prisoners — and should also be applauded by the public. At an average daily cost of $65.38 each, those 3,000 inmates represent over $71 million per year that could be better spent on education, health care and other socially beneficial services.

Of course, such savings should not be at the expense of public safety. The reduction in the state's prison population is being achieved through the regular parole process and efforts to ensure that inmates do not offend again, not by indiscriminate early releases.

The best way to prevent future crimes is to ensure that prisoners have the resources they need while incarcerated to lessen the chance they will offend after they get out. An estimated 80 percent of prisoners have drug or alcohol abuse problems. Yet, according to the Department of Correction's last annual report, only 5 percent of state inmates are assigned to substance abuse programs. About 25 percent of prisoners, on average, have a recent history of mental health problems, but only 2.4 percent of Tennessee state inmates are assigned to mental health programs. Numerous studies have shown that higher education correlates to lower recidivism rates, but TDOC has no higher education courses for prisoners.

This is not entirely the fault of prison officials, whose priorities are necessarily security-oriented to ensure public safety. The fact remains, however, that inmates who receive rehabilitative services — particularly substance abuse treatment — are less likely to commit more crimes. Because the recidivism rate in Tennessee is about 42 percent, even a small reduction would have a significant impact on public safety.

Consider prisoners' crimes

Also important is the type of prisoners who are being released. While drug and property offenders are considered low risk, they have some of the highest recidivism rates. According to a 2007 study by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, inmates convicted of robbery and assault had lower recidivism rates than those incarcerated for drug and theft offenses — yet, the latter are more likely to be paroled. Prisoners convicted of homicide have one of the lowest recidivism rates (2.3 percent), but are rarely paroled even after serving a substantial amount of time.

How "technical" parole violators are handled can also reduce the prison population. Technical violators are parolees who violate the terms of their supervised release but do not commit new felonies, such as by missing meetings with their parole officer or failing drug tests. An increased use of intermediate sanctions would keep technical violators out of the prison system, freeing up bed space for more serious offenders while reducing re-incarceration costs.

Lastly, how released prisoners are treated by the public has an impact on whether they successfully reintegrate into the community. Former inmates who are denied jobs and are unable to find housing due to their criminal record have a much higher risk of reoffending. Ex-prisoners who have been released after serving their debt to society and who are trying to get their lives back on track should be given a fair opportunity to do so.

Alex Friedmann is associate editor of Prison Legal News (, a monthly publication that reports on criminal justice issues. He is also a former prisoner who served 10 years in Tennessee prisons and jails.