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Won Pat addresses prison problems

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 by Ken Quintanilla

Guam - Just like Lt. Governor Ray Tenorio discussed in this week's address, Speaker Judi Won Pat is also focusing her weekly address on the overcrowding situation at the Department of Corrections. The speaker says simply building a new prison won't address DOC's core issues but instead leaders needs to be creative. She refers to an article written by percy pitzer, a retired warden who spent nearly three decades working in prisons and how guam should take his ideas into consideration in order to reduce recidivism and ease overcrowding at little cost to the government.

 "On Guam, little to nothing is done to prepare our prisoners for their return to the community, or to address the underlying issues that sent them to prison in the first place," she said.

Some of Pitzer's solutions include pursuing alternatives to incarceration, investing in residential re-entry centers and providing incentives to motivate prisoners to engage in positive behavior and programs.

***

There is no denying that our prison is overcrowded. However, we must be careful and creative in how we solve this problem. Simply building a new prison will not address the core issues plaguing the Department of Corrections.

A large part of the problem at DOC is that the facility is being used as a jail, when it was intended to be a prison. A jail is a short-term facility for detainees awaiting trial, while a prison is for inmates who have already been sentenced, particularly for more serious crimes. However, our island's detainees are being held at DOC and not in a jail while they await trial, limiting the prison's ability to fulfill its correctional mission.

Currently, detainees outnumber inmates at DOC, and as the detainee population has grown, the prison has had to convert classrooms and other spaces into housing areas, eliminating essential rehabilitative programs. While I believe there are crimes that require incarceration, and there are people who belong in prison, it is a disservice if we are not rehabilitating these prisoners before they are released back into the community.

This weekend, Vice Speaker B.J. Cruz shared the article, “Federal Overincarceration and Its Impact on Correctional Practices: A Warden's Perspective,” with all the senators and I want to share some of the main points with our community. This article was written by Percy Pitzer, a retired warden, who spent nearly 30 years working in prisons. Mr. Pitzer points out how each year, America locks up more individuals than it releases. He argues that there is a need to be “smart” on crime, not “tough” on crime and points out that in America, more money is spent on incarcerating people than on educating people. This is also true in Guam, where we spend about $5,500 per student a year compared to over $40,000 spent per prisoner a year.

Mr. Pitzer states that the public often has the perception that sending a person to prison solves the problem of crime. We cannot forget that most prisoners eventually return to the community. If these prisoners are not receiving rehabilitative services before they are released, then they become a danger to the community and to themselves. This is why recidivism rates are so high, and more than 40 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within three years. On Guam, little to nothing is done to prepare our prisoners for their return to the community, or to address the underlying issues that sent them to prison in the first place.

Mr. Pitzer offers 10 solutions that he believes could reduce recidivism and ease overcrowding at little cost to the government. Here are a few that I think our island should consider.

Conduct a cost-benefit analysis that explores whether or not the costs of incarceration provide the desired payoff for the community. Mr. Pitzer states, “If a 15-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute has the desired effect of incapacitation, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation (the four basic goals of corrections), then why impose a 20-year sentence?”

Pursue alternatives to incarceration both at the front end, when a person is arrested, and at the back end during the last year or two of a person's sentence. Electronic monitoring and treatment programs are cost effective alternatives for non-violent offenders, or for those facing drug-related charges. I applaud the island's Courts for piloting an electronic monitoring program for low-risk detainees.

Invest in Residential Reentry Centers with, “a strong emphasis on assessment, treatment and community connections.”

Provide incentives to motivate prisoners to engage in positive behavior and programs.

Develop thriving prison industries that prepare inmates for reentry into the job force and contribute to the community. DOC is working on creating a farming industry at the prison. They have 18 acres of land that could easily be used to support this effort.

Invest in reducing recidivism by improving reentry programs. Mr. Pitzer says there is a lot of scrutiny on safety and security measures while a person is incarcerated, but little accountability for the “product” of a correctional facility, which he describes as, “a released prisoner who is better off and less likely to recidivate than when he or she entered the system.”

Before our island invests in the construction of a new prison, we must be sure to explore these practical solutions to overcrowding and recidivism. We also need to evaluate whether it is a new prison we need, or if DOC simply needs to be renovated and modernized. Also, if the problem at DOC is an overwhelming amount of detainees, then we need to take a closer look at the need for a jail so that our correctional facility can focus on corrections.

Saina Ma'ase. 
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