Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

Life behinds bars is an uncovered topic. 2.3 M incarcerated Americans have been locked away without a voice. bhorowitz, the venture capitalist, recently shed light on this topic interviewing Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years in federal prison. Shaka’s book, Writing My Wrongs, detailing his life and his redemption is now a NY time best-seller.

Yes, people who commit crimes need a consequence for their actions. But what’s wrong with this picture?

The rate of incarcerating Americans has accelerated. The spike is from the “War on Drugs.” The United States which has less than five percent of the world’s population now holds close to twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.

This is important to you. Why? Shaka points out these people will be coming home and returning to your communities.

I was shocked by a lot of what Shaka shared. Here are three key issues to think about:

· There is risk from the over-use of solitary confinement. Shaka spent 7 ½ years of his 19-year sentence in solitary confinement. Imagine spending 17% of your life alone in a room 6x9, a space no bigger than the mattress on your bed. The UN just recently passed a new law, “The Nelson Mandela Laws,” stating that ‘solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority’.

·The economics of the business model don’t work. Ben Horowitz , one of the top venture capitalists in the world, knows good business models. He points out that the pay-per-prisoner model creates an economic disincentive to rehabilitate. This perverse incentive shows up in the results. US prisons have a 70% recidivism rate (which means 70% of all prisoners will return back into the prison system). Compare this with a 35% recidivism rate in EU countries like Germany which have effective rehabilitation programs.

· Prison shouldn’t be AirBNB. Most states impose a “pay-to-stay” fee in the form of a daily booking fee to prisoners. This can be $50/night plus $100 booking fee. So, once you are released, the collection agencies will come knocking at your door. Shaka shared that the estimated cost of his 19 years in federal prison… $1M. Talk about debtor’s prison?! There’s an estimated $10bn worth of criminal justice debt in the US, held by 10m men and women who have had some interaction with the criminal justice system.

Some lawyers are calling for action on these fees noting that charging inmates fees while incarcerated violates the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment provides “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” So, how is it we have $10bln in debt outstanding that states are trying to collect on?

I know this topic is loaded with all sorts of philosophical issues and political ramifications. I happened to see Shaka present on a panel three years ago at MIT, where he was a former MIT fellow. I was drawn to the event, intrigued to hear what someone who spent 19 years in prison might say. His talk stirred in me compassion for his plight and hope from his redemption. The same week I heard his podcast on A16Z, I came across this passage by Marianne Williamson, the best-selling author.

“The American prison system illustrates the philosophical and practical difference between the choice to perceive sin or to perceive error. We see criminals as guilty and seek to punish them. But whatever we do to others, we are doing to ourselves. In punishing others, we end up punishing ourselves… A Miracle here would be a shift from perceiving prisons as houses of punishment to perceiving them as houses of rehabilitation. When we consciously change their purpose from fear to love, we release infinite possibilities of healing.”
Marianne Williamson: A Return to Love p.99

The karma of all this serendipity compelled me to write this post. It is not easy to to think about the topic of justice and grace. It forces us to look deep inside at our morals and values.

We need reflect further on the idea that in punishing others, we may in the end just be punishing ourselves.

If you want to give a voice to this topic, click the green heart below. Your action will impact more people hearing this message.

I’m Anne Mitchell. I’m an executive coach with 15 years of venture capital experience and extensive training in positive psychology, coaching, and mindfulness. I work with entrepreneurs, founders, executives, and company boards to help them maximize their performance, overcome obstacles, and dare to be great. Learn more at

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