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Most of us, like Scott Barancik (“Clink Inc.,” 8/9), are quick to see difficulties in inmate jobs programs. But for Lorton and the District of Columbia, the need to succeed far outweighs temporary difficulties. Far from irrelevant, the inmate population is vital to D.C.’s economic health. The fact is, inmates are part of the District of Columbia economy, and we cannot get the inner city out of poverty until offenders are successfully employed, now and for the long run.
Overall, about 10 percent of the District’s adult black male population is out of the labor force in jail or prison, approaching 20 percent in the poorest neighborhoods. Most inmates were only marginally independent before prison and will remain so after release. These people need to become legally self-supporting.
We need inmates supporting their children. Statistics suggest that more than 10 percent of D.C.’s minority children (and up to one-fifth of its child welfare caseload) are offspring of nonsupporting inmate parents. Too often the “deadbeat dad” is an idled D.C. inmate. We need to spur parent-inmates into child support and into habits continuing support after release.
We need to reduce economic burdens on inner-city females. Except for taxpayers, costs for inmates and their children fall squarely on inner-city minority women, a low-income population suffering both relative and absolute income declines since 1980. They are the mothers and grandmothers of inmates or the mothers of their children—very low-income, single, minority heads of households. We have no more cost-effective strategy than shifting costs where they belong, to employed inmates themselves.
Victims’ compensation can only occur if offenders generate resources. Virtually everyone agrees offenders must be accountable; at the same time, being paupers, most inmates today cannot pay. To the extent we can move inmates into the earning labor force, we can direct some compensation to victims.
Barancik correctly sees Corrections offering opportunities for positive change. Prisons offer structure, discipline, absence of distractions, counseling, education, training, and sometimes motivation for change. Anecdotes suggest that at least half of a prison’s population is willing and able to work. Far better if inmates awoke every morning, dressed for work, worked, and returned at night to clean up, rest up, write home, and pay bills. We certainly could expect better preparation for release, along with improved homes and families and a more welcoming home environment at release. Best of all, we should likely find fewer recidivists and less likelihood of new generations in prison.
The D.C. private-industries program faces real challenges, as Barancik states. But District leaders have recognized what many are slow to see, that the city’s correctional policies are at the same time part of its economic policies, and that we can turn prison policies to help the economy. In this instance everyone involved deserves our congratulations and support.