Color Bars

Thinking Beyond the Old Adage: Lock ‘Em Up and Throw Away The Key

LEAD San Diego Vice President Sherrie-Lyn Thompson started out the recent LEAD IMPACT session acknowledging something we all knew to be true: there is something sensational about going into a high-security detention center, which was on our day’s agenda. The purpose, she assured us, was not entertainment but something much more significant. By the end of the day, I knew she was right.

It was a glimpse at a life that many people will never see. As we stood in the guard area looking out at the incarcerated men, I overheard someone from the LEAD cohort say he felt strange looking at them “like they are animals.” It was a no doubt an odd experience.

From the safety of the guard’s quarters, we received an explanation of the different colored wristbands worn by inmates. Men who committed among the most disturbing of crimes (sex crimes or crimes committed against children) wore yellow bands.

While many – myself included – may find it difficult to have compassion for the men behind bars, a more thoughtful look would reveal the situations that put many men there are complex and varied. Further, the solutions for what to do with them are far more complicated than what I’ve heard proposed many times: lock ‘em up and throw away the key.  It’s this thinking that has caused many to dub America the “incarceration nation.” And while many people prefer to think of the situation as “not my problem,” the reality is as taxpayers, it is our problem. For some, it’s a fiscal problem; for others, it’s a moral one.

“It’s a sad commentary on our society when people don’t care about what happens to inmates,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.

Even if you are among those who “don’t care,” Gore shared with the LEAD cohort a fact that may pique your interest. It’s also one that many people would prefer to ignore: more than 95 percent of inmates are released back into society. Then what? Many are lacking basic skills such as reading and writing.  Many others struggle with addiction. Unfortunately, California has among the highest recidivism rates in the nation, which are estimated by some to be as high as 80 percent in our state.  Without skills for integration with society, many return to their former lives that got them in trouble to begin with.

After touring two detention centers and the San Diego Regional Firearms Training Center, and hearing from several experts in rehabilitation, I left the day still a little unsure of what to think of it all. Later, I realized that in many ways, the people behind bars represented a culmination of societal problems and issues the LEAD cohort had been exposed to in earlier sessions.  The most obvious tie is to our discussion of behavioral health issues, including mental health and substance abuse disorders, which put people at greater risk of ending up behind bars. But ties can also be made to our education session and our discussion of developing 21st century leadership skills.

The incarceration system has problems with no easy answer, and it’s critical we think beyond simple solutions.  While undoubtedly there are incarcerated men and women who should never be allowed to walk the streets again, there are others who – like it or not – will. These men and women are someone’s child, mother, father, sister, brother, aunt or uncle. As a society, we need to be more compassionate and not take the easy way out by sweeping it all under the rug.

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