I am a former prison inmate. I served 17 consecutive years in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the crime of homicide. My parole was signed on January 19, 1987. I have been out of prison now for more than 12 years. I am proud to say that my parole has been a marvelous success. I am now happily married with a wonderful young son. I have been employed for quite some time in the mental health profession. I have also taught classes at Houston Community College and been a guest lecturer at Sam Houston State University.
This book presents a first person account of my life and observations in prison. Also presented are several theoretical analyses of prison culture and interpersonal relationships which I believe will shed light on the problem of our faltering correctional systems.
Undoubtedly, because of my background many will accuse me of attempting to "whitewash" or present a misleading picture of the criminal that claims that he/she is really the "victim" of the system rather than a conspicuous "victimizer." Let me assure you that this is by no means the case. I am acutely aware as few could ever be of the predatory and malicious nature of some criminals. After all, I was obliged to spend a career lifetime living among them.
As I am now a counselor by training my disposition in the matter may be stated quite simply. Indeed, if some offender or ex-incarcerant does not wish to reconcile with society and assume appropriate ethical responsibilities, then he/she may pay the lawful consequences. Society is under no obligation to pamper anyone who maliciously preys upon the well-being of others. This is not nearly as blithely indifferent as it may sound. In fact, it may be a rather generous policy in the long run. My legitimate function as a counselor is not to apologize for anyone's misconduct, but rather help well-meaning people understand the consequences of their thoughts and actions. That I should cater to the whimsies of anyone who is not well meaning only reinforces and enables antisocial conduct. This is counterproductive and thwarts the "good faith" efforts of ex-offenders who are trying to go straight.
Since my purpose is to help people of the latter persuasion as well as conscientious laypeople who are trying to understand our decaying criminal justice system, I have little patience with "dead wood" who are trying to exploit the system. Hopefully, I can persuade some to apply themselves toward becoming sound and productive citizens. This, I am truly convinced, is a worthwhile motive despite its many political detractors in these days and times. After all, let us not forget that the victims of crime are no less victims notwithstanding our ceaseless efforts to punish criminals. Preventive measures are therefore rational and very much in the public interest. Effective guidance counseling in a reasonably healthy social setting can be a major preventive measure. At any rate, it may be the proverbial "one candle in the darkness."
Moreover, words cannot adequately describe how difficult it is for a man such as myself to emerge from 17 years of prison and make something respectable of himself. The prejudice I have faced at times has almost been unbearable. And every time some selfish and thoughtless ex-offender commits a crime while on parole, the prejudice against me waxes all the harder. The news media is always quick to publicize parole violations. Very seldom do they publicize parole successes. As a result, I tend to share the public disdain for repeat offenders though, however, in a more constructive and socially minded vein.
Furthermore, the safety and well-being of my young son (whom I once thought might never exist) motivates my determination to deal effectively with crime. It is very distressing to me to note that parents today walk with their children to school. This was not considered necessary when I was growing up. I am likewise distressed by the fact that the high school in Houston, Texas from which I graduated in 1966 now has a 10-foot fence around the parking lot to prevent auto theft. Adding insult to injury, security guards now stalk the hallways of the building. Such bulwarks did not exist 30 years ago when I attended there. I do not like the fact that school classrooms are in a state of chaos with teachers threatened with lawsuits should they dare enforce only a modicum of reasonable discipline. When I was growing up a ten-year-old student did not angrily address his/her school teacher with obscenities much less brandish a firearm with impunity. If society and especially children are to be safe, "applied chaos" must not become a legacy of the classroom.
In essence, my hard won success as a parolee on the civic scene, in the family, and in the workplace is my token of "good faith" to anyone who will read this book and think critically about its message. To those who are politically conservative, I will ask that you consider the tremendous waste of public funds and destruction of community and family values now engendered by our beleaguered and ineffective correctional systems. To those who are politically liberal I will ask that you consider the outrageous abuse of human rights, wasted human potential, and continued victimization of innocent citizens now encouraged by these institutions. Surely, no sane person would argue against the fact that we must reform criminals, not simply immerse them in a costly and abortive penal system that only drains the public coffers, wallows in corruption, and consistently produces better and more cunning criminals.
The title of this book is The Iron Ghetto. The title, of course, is a reference to prison. The dictionary defines "ghetto" as a section of a city in which some minority of citizens are restricted as a result of economic or social discrimination. In other words, a "ghetto, is a virtual subculture created by negative public sanction."
Using this definition, I submit that prisons in America are rapidly approaching sufficient population and negative social status as to be properly called a "ghetto." At the present time there are approximately 1.7 million persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons across the country. This is the population of a major city. This is a shocking .645% of our total population. This is the largest proportional prison population of any developed country in the world even exceeding that of the old Apartheid system of South Africa. Adding to this another four million people incarcerated in local jails or else under supervisory systems of parole, probation, or detention, and the figure comes to a whopping 2.17% of our total population. This represents one in 46 Americans in serious trouble with the law. Recidivism rates (repeated offenses) are now raging as high as 61% for persons less that three years absent from incarceration. Obviously, our correctional systems are not working too well.
As a nation, we spend 50 billion dollars annually to arrest, prosecute, and punish criminals. It cost $21,000 per year to maintain one person in prison. This is almost median income for a family of four. It is also more than we spend per year on the public education of one child. The moral and civic implications of the are staggering.
Approximately 94.5% of persons incarcerated in prisons in America are male; 5.5% are female. Approximately 47.3% are White; 51.1% are Black; and 1.5% are of other ethnic origins. Approximately, 23% of the Black male population under 35 and 6% of the White male population of the same age bracket are in prison or jail. Approximately 67.6% of the total U.S. prison population is under 35 years of age. Approximately 41.2% of the American prison population have less than 12 years of public education.
Prisons and jails across the country are disastrously overcrowded with no relief in sight. Many are under federal court order to depopulate. Injunctions of this type have met with harsh public resistance since they sometimes result in the early release of prison inmates. Recidivism rates are extremely high. Prisons and jails are being built as fast as law making bodies can sanction them. But the problem does not abate. Judges and juries are handing out longer and harsher sentences and insisting that probation and parole be used more sparingly.
Correctional ideologies which allegedly control the treatment of prisoners are usually based on three competing perspectives. All three seem to have some strong points and some gross deficiencies.
First there is the classical school. This is the notion of punishment as a deterrent to crime. It presumes that sufficient punishment or the threat of punishment will cause persons to refrain from illegal acts.
The strong point of the classical school is that it is effective under sufficiently ominous circumstances. The imminent threat of punishment will control human behavior.
The weak point of the classical school is that it is neither practical nor desirable in our present civil climate. Our society is very culturally diverse and extremely conscious of human rights. Immense police power is viewed as intrusive and a major threat to civil rights. Moreover, a police force of sufficient strength to control our diverse population by threat of public censure would be cost prohibitive. We are not a fascist society, nor are we likely to become one given our great ethnic diversity. Moreover, prisoners today are very much aware of their rights and will only balk at overly repressive measure. The massive prison riots of the latter two decades have sufficed to demonstrate this. Furthermore, massive police power is fundamentally incompatible with democratic values. Where people are controlled by force, the public mandate has no meaning. We have only to consider the nihilism of Hitler and Stalin in order to understand this.
Second, there is the medical model of crime also called the positive school of criminology. Pursuant to this school, the criminal is presumed to be a victim of forces beyond his/her control. These forces may include but are certainly not limited to mental illness, poverty, lack of education, or a host of other factors alleged to "determine" criminal conduct. Correctional practice therefore is said to be a form of psychotherapy inducing one to "go straight" as it were, and reintegrate successfully back into society.
The strong point of the medical model of crime is that it has alleviated in some instances the inhumane treatment of prisoners.
The weak point of the medical model of crime is that it defeats criminal responsibility. If criminal conduct is said to be "caused" by factors beyond one's control, then no one can be held accountable under law. Freedom of choice and personal liability become mere delusions. Nihilism becomes a necessary condition of humanity. Criminal justice becomes as logically indefensible as impossible to enforce. Moreover, while some criminals may have indeed reformed with the assistance of competent clinical counseling, there is no substantial evidence suggesting that this approach is any more effective in the long run than the classical school. Furthermore, controlling people by appeal to some abstract formula (such as deterministic psychology) can be as threatening to human rights as massive police power. Universal suffrage presupposes the integrity of personal moral judgments. Where this is undermined by some intransigent notion of how things ought to be usually administered by "experts," the integrity of personal moral judgments is reduced to a meaningless and impractical sham. Hence, democratic values are reduced to delusions.
Third, there is the concept of community corrections. This approach maintains that criminals should be rehabilitated through interaction with the community if at all possible. Most likely this would apply to persons convicted of crimes against property or at least not threatening to life and limb. It further presupposes that the public stigma in the awareness of one's conviction will deter further criminal conduct while at the same time encouraging one to reform.
The strong point of community corrections is that it is the ideal. Public stigma is the most effective way to accomplish social control. The low crime rates of homogeneous societies suffice to demonstrate this. In some oriental societies fear of public disgrace due to some dishonorable deed has moved people to suicide.
The weak point of community corrections is that in our society it is extemely difficult to implement. People today seem to be too busy, too apathetic, or too vengeful to be concerned about such things. Moreover, our contemporary scene seems to be much too mobile, too culturally diverse, too fragmented, and too bureaucratic and acquisitive to even remotely approximate an effective community. What we have today is too much "social atomism" and social anonymity. Amid such a atmosphere criminal deviance seems to flourish, not abate.
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I do not mean to denigrate the concept of community corrections. Far from it, it is the most effective way to deal with crime as I have mentioned. I will further argue for this approach as this book proceeds. But, if we are ever to implement such a program, we must change our shortsighted and improvident views of crime and corrections. If somehow we could restore a sense of community in our neighborhoods we could likewise restore an effective social conscience. This would go a long way toward reducing crime much more so that our present demands for increasing incarceration.
Finally, on a brighter note, contrary to the beliefs of many, the overall crime rate in America although still outrageously high is actually down from what it was in the early 1970's. This runs counter to what many news media and politicians are trying to suggest. According to the U.S. Department of Justice the number of people per one hundred thousand reporting victimization by crime is significantly less that what it was 20 years ago. However, the number of people actually reporting crimes to the police has gone up considerably as has the sophistication of police techniques. This gives the illusion of a consistent increase in overall crime rates. This general lowering of the crime rates owes no doubt to the aging of the baby boomer generation. Most street crime is committed by males 18 to 35 years of age. This, however, is no grounds for complacency. While overall crime rates are down, there is some indication that the proportion of crime committed by youthful offenders has actually gone up. In the meantime, 59% of all crime resulting in incarceration is drug related. Hence, there is still much work to be done no thanks to our faltering correctional systems.
Such as it is, I will ask the reader to give serious thought to these issues as I review the life of The Iron Ghetto as I was obliged to live it. I can never forget those harsh and demanding years I spent in prison and the invaluable lessons in life I learned from them. Among the many things I was disposed to learn in prison is the fact that the human mind is amazingly resilient and capable. Accordingly, I am by no means pessimistic about my own life, nor the ability of society to solve its problems. We need only apply ourselves to the task with all the intelligence and self-honesty that we can muster. We have a safe and caring society to gain by it, and only prejudice and irrationalism to lose. It is my fondest hope that this book will contribute to these goals.
Copyright © 1999 by John L. Indo & Pamela S. Indo