March 9, 2005

March 9, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

A "Good Thing" for Former Prisoners

Dear Martha,

Welcome home and congratulations. According to published reports, you have done quite well for yourself while serving time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As Newsweek noted, the increased valuation of your stock has made you "a billionaire once again." You have two new TV shows ready to go, and a new line of furniture is slated to hit the stores the summer. And with the Kmart-Sears merger closing soon, you will have twice the shelf space for all your wares.

You have made the most of your prison stay and done "well." As a master of positioning, you also will understand that you are uniquely positioned now to do "good."

Again, according to published reports, you learned what it takes to be a model prisoner. (One of your new prison pals went so far to say that you "fit in very well here.") You immersed yourself in prison life and learned the prison version of going along to get along. You gave of yourself to many of the inmates and apparently made a difference in their lives. It's reported that you have come to understand that not all convicted felons are bad people.

The same day you left Alderson under a media glare, approximately another 1,500 inmates were also released from federal, state or local prisons or jails. There are only two differences between you and these other 1,500 inmates. One, you returned to a nice home, supportive family and friends and a good job. Most of the others did not. The second difference is, statistically speaking, 67 percent of the state inmates and many of the women you met at Alderson likely will return to prison after they have been released. It's safe to say you will not.

As we noted above, you are in a unique position to do more good for the other 100,000 women in state and local prisons -- the women you did not meet over the last five months. This good would be an extension of the class in entrepreneurial ventures for women you started at Alderson. You would be helping the scores of business leaders who would rather employ prison inmates than outsource to Mexico or India set up companies inside prisons. You would be helping them get over the bureaucratic hurdles so they can train and employ American inmates instead of foreign nationals.

We think you will appreciate the enormous impact that this training and employment has on women inmates. A case in point: Several years ago, the Enterprise Prison Institute helped a company set up a small services center in a women's prison. We lamented to the warden that the company could offer only 15 jobs for his 500 inmates. The warden immediately reminded us of the impact that these 15 jobs had on all of his inmates. Because these jobs (paying the federal minimum wage) were the most sought-after inmate program, most inmates worked harder in their school and rehabilitation classes to earn the chance to apply for these jobs. His words were memorable: "Overnight, we had a women's prison that offered good training, jobs and hope. I could feel the difference in the attitudes of the women right away. It was stark."

Mostly beyond the media lights, there are some companies who are already offering training, work and hope for women inmates today. With the right assistance, there could be far more. While you certainly have hundreds of ideas in your suggestion box as to what to do to "do good," what more fitting way to assist these 100,000 women than by helping provide the work training and experience in prison, so they, too, can return home to a good job?

Edwin Meese III, a former U.S. attorney general who heads the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation is chairman of the Enterprise Prison Institute. Knut A. Rostad is the Institute's director.

About the Author

Edwin Meese III Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

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