The Evolution of Corrections

George Lombardi, the former Missouri department of corrections director, spoke at my university on February 21st. I was encouraged by my sociology professor to attend, and thus this paper was written.

I had the pleasure of listening to Mr. George Lombardi on Tuesday night. Lombardi is the former Director of Corrections in the state of Missouri, but he’s also just an all around witty guy. Lombardi was able to convince me of several interesting things, which I’ll mention later. He has an interesting history, completing his masters in psychology and then spending the next forty years of his life in the corrections system. His speech was relatively brief but can be broken up into intriguing sections.

A Lesson In History

Lombardi was a graduate student when he found himself working in the industry of corrections instead of writing a thesis. The prison where he spent his time had experienced 72 murders by stabbing, it was the largest prison in the state, and he was the only person with any psychological experience. It was one day in “the oval” as he called it that he was talking to a very large man. By his account, this man was six-ten and about four-hundred pounds. The question that the giant asked him was, “Is you the nut doctors?” From this moment, Lombardi knew he was going to spend his life helping however he could. It echoes the time that Bryan Stevenson met with his first client, who kept his head high and sang, and knew from that moment on that he found his passion. It’s the same moment I hope to experience in these formative years of my life.

A lot has changed since Lombardi found his calling. The state of Missouri had 7 prisons when he started, it now has 21. The number of Jails has increased by tenfold according to Lombardi. Parole is five times as high as when he started as well. Of the near billion dollars in the budget, it gets distributed among the twenty-five percent of state employees who work in corrections. All of this begs the question…

Why did we get so big?

Lombardi had no doubts as to what has happened. As a society, we are much more conservative in our treatment of crimes and criminals. We are so intolerant to them that we increase their sentencing drastically. “Back in the day,” Lombardi says, “First-degree murder would get you ten to twelve years and then parole. Now, it’s death or fifty years no parole.” Conservative views have only served to increase sentencing. With such long sentences, there become a backup of prisoners. Every legislative meeting, there is a new clause added that adds or enhances punishments for crime. For example, drug possession near a school is an extra offense, something that never existed in Lombardi’s career.

The system we tout as being “just” is actually serving to only increase the stigma we have around crime and criminals. This theme will continue throughout the presentation. As we discuss in class, there are many factors that will contribute to the potential outcome of health, and as such, these same factors will also contribute not only to the likelihood of committing a crime but to receiving punishment for it as well. As we often discuss in law, there is no way for a system of paid and public attorneys to be equal. And as in the book I’m currently reading, Gideon’s Trumpet, there wasn’t even the access to a public defender until one brave man took the stand to change that. A low socio-economic status can have just as much an impact on receiving a life sentence as it can for dying of complications related to hypertension. It’s ultimately a societal issue, one I’m personally polarized to change.

Prison or Mental Health Institution

It seems like it should be an easy distinction, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Drugs are a major issue in society, one that we chose to criminalize rather than treat as an illness. Drug culture plagues prison and the constant theme is wondering if criminals can get it together in time. A lot of time, they can’t. Prison becomes their haven for mental treatment because of a failing healthcare system. They don’t have a parachute, just a cell with their scent barely removed. Especially because of the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, the number of mentally-ill in the streets (and by extension, prison) has increased. With great emphasis in his voice, Lombardi said this: “Corrections are the de-facto mental health!”

Law enforcement is now dealing with mental health patients rather than criminals. They feel guilty knowing that this person needs treatment rather than jail. It also only serves to escalate incidents where cops are scared and react impulsively. Cops aren’t trained to work with mentally ill and handicapped people, as evident by the Miami police who shot an autistic boy’s caregiver last summer.

Health delivery to inmates was terrible altogether. University of Missouri students actually began practicing medicine on the inmates. This would later support lawsuits that inmates were living in very poor conditions. And now, we have very sophisticated systems of mental health in prison. This is a huge thing that I am thankful we have. I actually know a few offenders who are benefitting from this right now.

Growing Pains and Education

Because the population is always increasing, police are always improving apprehension rates and the federal government mandated better living conditions, there was a surge of state prisons being built. New mandatory minimum sentences meant that many people would die in these new prisons, but they did have some advantages. For one, they were much more organized and units were separated. Violent individuals could be made separate from non-violent offenders. This led to safer prisons for both inmates and staff. Prisons also started to really try to make a difference in the lives of inmates. Prisons wanted to lower reincarceration and recidivism. Education was the solution. I stand firmly behind this that education is the great equalizer in society. The mandates required prisoners to work on their GED prior to parole and complete the GED before or while on parole. About 1500 GEDs are earned in the Missouri corrections system annually. There is also vocational training. The jobs are in truck driving and construction. Facilities have advanced simulators that allow inmates to get lifelike experience. Many inmates now receive CDLs and get jobs immediately after parole. I think this is the most important factor in reducing recidivism. It’s more than just a job, it may be keeping a family together, it may be preventing a future crime. Industries like truck driving and construction are so desperate that they don’t care about felon status, but other businesses need to follow suit. Lombardi later mentioned that he personally visits and awards businesses that hire ex-felons.

Not only are we giving inmates the opportunity to finish secondary education, but through initiatives like one provided by Saint Louis University, we are allowing both inmates and prison employees to get associate’s degrees and continue post-secondary education. In a world where the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma, this is a great equalizer, but it still isn’t quite enough. I personally know someone who was convicted of a felony charge, finished his bachelor’s in prison, returned to get his masters once released, yet he still can’t find work. How can someone with phenomenal grades in calculus and a very strong work ethic get turned down for a job? Easy, they check one little box that says they were convicted of a felony. This isn’t entirely anecdotal either. I know another individual with a Ph.D. and a felony. He’s the manager of a McDonalds in my area. I hear about it all the time in the books I read. It is no different than the discrimination on the basis of race or gender, yet we don’t protect these people.

Justice

“Justice is the opportunity for offenders to give back to the community for their transgressions!” Lombardi says that if we want to rehabilitate criminals, we need to teach them one very essential thing: companionship for others, total altruism.

One such program is the garden program. Last year, the program gave 100 tons of produce to pantries across Missouri. That is a huge impact. Another program involves one of the most contested battles in Missouri; puppy mills. When Lombardi was looking for someone brave enough to approach the idea, he found an amazing response in the warden, now director, of a prominent prison. In February 2010, 19 of the 21 had dog programs that connect inmates with puppy-mill dogs. To date, 4353 dogs have not only been saved, but also trained and passed the AKC good citizenship test. Not only that, some of these dogs have been specialized to tackle issues like autism and PTSD. Some of the dogs they trained were even blind or deaf, but they were still able to accomplish it. We need to stop stigmatizing inmates because they clearly can make a large difference in our society, we just need to give them the right tools.

Another program, that Lombardi chuckled as he shared, was for the highest offenders. They were knitting hats and booties for women and children. I know why he was laughing, just imagine a huge, tough, violent dude knitting a cute little pink hat.

A policy that Lombardi is proud of is the hospice policy that was implemented in the corrections system. It just isn’t fair for inmates to die in a cell alone, so he encouraged the system to respond better and have other inmates care for the older individuals. The response was amazing. It gave inmates some dignity back in dying.

I asked Lombardi, “So the numbers [of recidivism and reincarnation] are up, what do we do to change that?”

Lombardi was quick. “Public Education and Advocacy, that’s why I get out and do these speeches.” Criminals are not necessarily bad guys. We need to rewrite the narrative as Bryan Stevenson would say. We need public opinion to shift to give these broken people a second chance. Probation is a viable option, as is parole. We must break the cycle, give these souls an education and a job, give them purpose. Programs like the one working with dogs give inmates a significant reduction in violent behavior. That’s called rehabilitation. What the public doesn’t understand is that prison should not be somewhere for someone to go to rot. You shouldn’t want someone who committed an atrocity to suffer one themselves. That’s selfish, and we don’t live by Hammurabi’s Code. It’s a hard sell, but the man who held you at gunpoint, he needs to be rehabilitated, not put in a cell indefinitely.

A Funny Story

Just in case you weren’t captivated by the rest of Lombardi’s speech, he ended with a particularly funny story.

At one of the prisons, inmates would load or unload boxcars. Sometimes they would bring in raw material, or sometimes they would ship out produced goods. Inmates are clever, and one inmate in specific was also pretty crafty. This inmate made an entire fake structure that allowed him to hide in a boxcar. He timed the arrivals and departures perfectly. This was clearly playing a long-con. One day, the emboldened criminal made his escape. He rode the car all the way to Jefferson City. He made a break for it. Wanting to cover as much distance as possible, he tried to hitchhike. Lucky for him, he got a ride immediately. Unfortunately for him, it was with the very deputy sheriff who had booked him, and his destination was prison once again.