In prison, ingenuity becomes a way of life. A roll of toilet paper turns into a deck of playing cards. Headphones transform into television speakers. Bic pens replace tattoo guns, and cherry Dr. Pepper serves as the base for fried ramen noodles. In conversations with the HPR, incarcerated individuals described harsh restrictions on what they can do with their free time. Hence, creativity is key.
Every correctional facility in the United States has its own regulations that govern the daily schedules of inmates. Some prisons offer their inhabitants a range of activities like vocational workshops, educational programs, and organized sports leagues. Others, however, confine prisoners within their cells for the majority of the day without offering sufficient rehabilitative opportunities. Free time in prisons varies significantly both across and within state borders due to security protocols and budgetary irregularities, among other factors. These inconsistencies result in severe consequences for prisoners that the public often fails to notice, leaving many inmates at risk of recidivism—relapsing into crime.
Filling the Gaps
Recreation plays a large role in an inmate’s wellbeing, as noted by Christopher Brosco,* who served eight months at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. The college courses offered at the prison “were kind of a joke,” Brosco told the HPR. Furthermore, the basketballs were “half-deflated,” and the only available gym equipment was a solid piece of metal for pull-ups. For many in the prison, the most blatant problem came not from the facility’s bland food or lackluster amenities, but from its lack of organized sports. To alleviate their jail-time woes, some inmates formed their own basketball and softball tournaments, while others played frisbee to fend off boredom.
The true worth of such activities became fully apparent when a riot broke out during Brosco’s time at Susanville, and inmates were locked in their rooms for two months. Correctional officers cut off the electricity and removed the television as punitive measures, leaving the inmates with scarce opportunity for interpersonal entertainment. According to Brosco, who passed the time by reading and drawing, the inmates were “stagnant and bored out of their minds.”
Although Brosco’s fellow inmates simply wanted an athletic outlet to help pass the time, research suggests sports have numerous additional physically and psychologically positive impacts on inmates. Sports in prisons have been linked to lower rates of depression, distractibility, and loneliness. In an inquiry conducted by the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies, researchers concluded that sports-based programs are a cost-effective way for prisoners to prevent health issues and maintain general well-being, which in turn helps ameliorate daily prison issues such as stress and emotional instability.
In addition to sports, inmates like Brosco turn towards art and literature for entertainment. In a 1994 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 89 percent of inmates reported reading a book within the last six months, with the most popular genres being fictional novels, reference materials like encyclopedias, inspirational works, and religious texts. This statistic certainly rang true in Norfolk County Corrections in Dendum, Massachusetts, where Sam Ferrara served three months. “Everyone was crazy about books,” Ferrara told the HPR. “Everyone read Game of Thrones and the Jack Reacher series. Lots of people read fantasy. It was an escapist kind of thing.”
Others, like Sammer Elkhateeb, who served ten months at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault, spend most of their time writing letters to friends and family. For prisoners who might not have such familial connections in the outside world, pen pal writing is a popular option. WriteAPrisoner.com, a pen pal website, currently has over 10,000 listings of inmates seeking to correspond with people on the outside. Another website, Friends Beyond the Wall, features over 2,500 personal ad profiles of inmates from 46 different states. The connections that inmates make through these programs and similar services help them stay updated on real world issues. Research has also shown that inmates who maintain contact with people in the outside world tend to have more success reintegrating into society and are less likely to be convicted of future crimes.
Preparing for Tomorrow
While recreation may offer therapeutic value, prisons focus on rehabilitation in an attempt to prevent inmates from relapsing into crime once released.. With some exceptions, almost every prison has a basic GED curriculum, which is funded by the federal government. Other programs vary by state and individual facility. “In terms of rehabilitation, we spend close to $500 million annually on our core curriculum,” Bill Sessa, a Public Information Officer for the California Department of Corrections, told the HPR. “We have courses like ‘Criminal Thinking’ that attempt to change how inmates think or how they value things,” Sessa continued. “We want them to make different decisions once they’re back on the street and confronted with the same issue that put them in prison in the first place.”
Like California, New York also provides prisoners with a variety of academic opportunities, such as a program for inmates with math and reading deficiencies and a bilingual program for non-native English speakers. Many correctional facilities across the United States also offer vocational training in crafts such as cabinet-making and welding to ensure that inmates have tangible skills when they leave the state’s custody. In 2013, researchers at the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, found that inmates who partook in educational programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison compared to those who did not. Several other studies, including one conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have also shown that education leads to a reduction in recidivism.
On paper, prison education appears effective. In reality, however, such programs fall far short of their stated goals. During Steven Tanner’s* two years at the Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent, Alabama, only two classes were offered: Creative Writing and Art Interpretation. Tyler Cameron,* who served two years at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, found similar deficiencies while at the George Beto Unit, where he enrolled in a government class and was frustrated by the inefficient teaching system. “It wasn’t set up for learning because the teacher was video-conferencing with two different facilities, and it was one-way,” Cameron said in an interview with the HPR. “If she was talking, she couldn’t hear us. If we had a question, she had to stop her mic, and we would have to turns ours on. Not many questions were asked simply because the process to do so was so difficult.”
In some facilities, educational courses are undermined by incentives that are easy for inmates to exploit. For example, in the state of Connecticut, inmates are provided stipends to attend GED classes, and because class size is limited, those under 21 are prioritized over older inmates. According to Blake Wally,* who served two years in several Connecticut prisons, there was little incentive to do well in the classes. Because passing a course meant an inmate could no longer receive a stipend, many inmates intentionally failed the course in order to retake the class and continue receiving financial assistance. The misalignment of incentives in Connecticut’s Department of Corrections creates an artificial demand for education, and as a result, the system ends up both wasting valuable resources and ignoring older inmates who have a real desire to rehabilitate. Furthermore, warped incentives also cause inmates to place low-quality classes ahead of interpersonal skills offered by recreational leagues or other social activities.
Why Differences Exist
The most salient factor affecting how prisoners spend their free time is security level. Inmates in lower-security facilities are typically allowed more time outside of their cells and are less restricted in movement. Meanwhile, in super-maximum prisons such as Colorado’s ADX Florence, nicknamed Alcatraz of the Rockies, prisoners classified as “most dangerous” are confined to their cells 23 hours a day and are supervised by multiple guards during their solitary recreational time.
During his sentence, Cameron lived on two different low-level security facilities: the H.H. Coffield Unit and the George Beto Unit, both located in Anderson County, Texas. On weekdays, Cameron worked on a nearby hog farm, raising animals for slaughter. After work, he was free to wander the facility, spending most of his time practicing yoga and meditation with his friends on the recreational field. Inmates at Cameron’s facility had access to televisions in the day room, a basketball court, and a handball court during the day, and they could check out Scrabble, chess, and other games at any time.
Things were very different, however, when Cameron was at a higher-security facility. “You could only leave your cell during certain times, and you were always under supervision,” Cameron told the HPR. Correctional officers monitored all prison activities including showers. Inmates were prohibited from going anywhere by themselves and even entering the day room for recreation required a guarded escort. Texas law mandates that state prisons allow inmates to go outside for recreational time. However, in units like those Cameron stayed in, the facilities were so understaffed that guards frequently did not have the manpower to allow inmates outside.
Chronic prison understaffing has long been a national concern. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of federal and state prisoners increased by 51 percent, yet, the number of correctional officers increased by only eight percent over the same period. In 2012, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice lost around 500 guard positions after lawmakers slashed the state budget, and many states such as Michigan, New Mexico, Kansas, and West Virginia currently face high vacancy and turnover rates in their prison staffs.
Funding poses another salient concern among prisons, and it is one of the most likely factors to vary across states. California, for example, spends around $71,000 per inmate annually. The state also invests around eight million dollars a year into Art in Corrections, a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and the California Arts Council, which gives grant money to various arts organizations to help combat recidivism by providing inmates with artistic opportunities such as theater, painting, poetry, and sculpture. In contrast, Mississippi spends around $18,000 per inmate annually—just one quarter of California’s allotment—resulting in limited rehabilitation and recreational programs.
Government funding aside, inmates sometimes need to pay for recreation themselves, often at a high cost. In Wally’s Connecticut facility, a variety of entertainment options such as a radio or a television could be purchased from the commissary. However, prison markups ensured that many of these devices exceeded the typical inmate’s budget. “Everything was grossly overcharged,” Wally told the HPR. “A radio you could buy for $60 at Walmart was $250 here. A Nintendo costs $200 outside but $400 in here. They pretty much tax you on everything you can buy that would take your mind off being in prison.”
Wally’s observation was not an anomaly. In Illinois, the Unified Code of Corrections only allows commissary goods to be marked up by 25 to 35 percent. However, a 2011 investigation by the Public Policy Board discovered that the Department of Corrections had been affixing an extra charge to commissary goods before adding the allowed percentage markup, thus charging inmates more than what was legally allowed. Commissary markups in the Texas Department of Corrections average almost 33 percent more than retail price. Instant ramen, the most popular item, carries a hefty 44 percent markup.
Between unreasonable markups, severe understaffing, and immense interstate discrepancies, free time in prison varies widely. Some prisoners are fortunate enough to live in facilities with sufficient funding and plentiful rehabilitative programs. In California, almost every prison has a yoga master. Other inmates are less fortunate and are forced to endure outdated prisons that lack enough manpower to allow prisoners to go outside. While educational programs and vocational workshops play a significant role in rehabilitation, well-used free time clearly deserves more recognition for its proven impact on inmates’ mental health, recidivism rates, and overall well-being. With the majority of prisoners eventually returning to society, the unfree people of today will require the necessary wellness offered by recreation in order to succeed as the free people of tomorrow.
*Name has been changed
Image Source: Pixabay/jodylehigh