Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
I sat in the interview room at the state prison waiting to speak to a man who had been convicted of attempted murder. When he arrived, I could see the same sheepish, skeptical, and frightened look I’ve seen on hundreds of faces. Nobody trusts anybody in prison. He had no idea why he was in this room and, I assume, he didn’t think my presence was good news.
If you want to hear the deafening sound of silence, call your congressman’s office and tell her that you want her to pursue prison reform. In general, nobody cares about prisoners except those who have loved ones inside. Otherwise, like many marginalized populations, prisoners are irrelevant to most citizens. Their plights are ignored because most people don’t even bother to consider the hardships of prison life.
I’m not a softy. Some people need to be in prison.
The convict in my interview committed a serious offense and he pled guilty. Sentenced to 60 years, he probably will never see the outside of a prison again, but I still hurt for him. Prison is a very cold and lonely place. The bars and razor wire are only part of what makes it so heartless.
There are three types of prisoners – those who are guilty and need to be locked up (like my subject); those who are guilty of a crime but are no threat to anyone; and, most troubling, those who are not guilty and wrongly convicted. The US prison systems house over 2.25 million men and women. Many of these individuals are in the latter two categories and if the doors were opened today and they walked free, they would never be a threat to anyone.
My very first lesson for my criminal justice students is to drill into their heads that the justice system is not about truth. It is about what you can prove and/or what deals you can make.
Less than 10% (some say even as low as 2%) of charged individuals actually see a trial by jury. By far, most cases are settled on the telephone or in hallways. There is no way that every single charged individual could have a trial by jury. Rendering a plea is the most expedient way to deal with thousands of cases that come through courtrooms every year.
Wrongful convictions result in two ways. Some individuals are wrongly forced in the interrogation room to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Space doesn’t allow me to explain why, but this phenomenon is well-documented.
More commonly, attorneys have to calculate the evidence against a client, the probability of conviction, the cost of trial, the amicability of the assigned judge, and the likelihood of a sympathetic jury to render a verdict other than guilty for any given crime.
If the evidence is damaging, even if the accused is innocent, this person is faced with a frightening choice. For example, he may be facing a life sentence if convicted, but only 5 years is he pleas to a lesser crime. This happens daily. If I were in such a situation and I knew I was innocent, but I knew the judge was not impartial, the evidence made me look guilty, and I was facing the rest of my life in prison – I might agree to a plea.
Many of these men are forgotten by their families or their families simply cannot regularly make the long trip, often hours away from home, to visit.
The prison system is cold and mechanical. An inmate is powerless – totally at the mercy of guards, wardens, prosecutors, and behavior of other inmates. Two inmates in a fight might result in an entire pod being locked down and/or restricted from visitation or other privileges.
These forgotten men are treated like cattle – shuffled from one cell to another or one facility to another, sometimes without warning. This means people might need days or weeks to find out where their loved ones have been sent.
If they are sent back to their county jails for court related issues, after days or weeks in those jails, they may or may not be returned to the prison in which they had begun building a life.
These are human beings. Even though my subject deserved jail, the way we treat prisoners is heartless. The evil, vicious, and scary prisoner is the exception. Most prisoners are good men and women who simply made bad choices. They are content to serve their sentences quietly and cooperatively.If you want to make a difference this Christmas, contact your local prison ministry and buy a Christmas box for a prisoner or a prisoner’s family.