• McKenzie Blankenship

Escaping the cell: Surviving life after prison

I see the blue and red lights flashing through my old, crusty blinds. They are stained from years of muddy hands holding them aside to keep watch. I know as soon as I hear the blaring siren that they’ve come for me. There’s no use flushing anything down the toilet or stashing things away in sock drawers- but I do it anyway, out of instinct. There’s pounding on the door and before I can run or hide, it slams over. The moon reflects off their badges and off chains that would quickly be tightened around my wrists. I stare out to the night, realizing I made a big mistake.

If prisoners are in solitary confinement, they are kept in a separate cell, perpetually alone. The chance of successfully rehabilitating these prisoners is highly unlikely since there is no human interaction. This is why inmates are often encouraged to interact with one another, whether that be through fellow inmates or the prison staff.

Those who commit greater crimes may not have the same opportunities to socialize as other inmates may have. The inmates who committed a more serious crime may be placed in solitary confinement.

“People in prison are assigned a security level when they are incarcerated based on their crime. They may be treated differently in the fact that certain privileges may not be available,” an information technology support specialist from a prison in Ohio, who wished to be unnamed, said. Many inmates have dreams or goals that they would like to accomplish and those who are more proactive with their sentences may reach those goals.

“All of their dreams were pretty realistic and they seemed to have things to do with making society better,” English teacher Kelly Cable said.

Cable formerly worked at the Ohio State Reformatory for adult males in Mansfield, Ohio for one year in the mental health unit. She also worked in Ashtabula at the Youth Development Center with adult males and adolescents of both genders for two years. There, she was in charge of group counseling and moving inmates from one area to another throughout the day. Both of these prisons were maximum security. Staff members are always there, willing to encourage them to think about these goals and getting back their previous lives. However, for some, these dreams may not feel within reach.

“It was very sad for me to see adolescent inmates commit suicide or harm themselves. I recall one person in particular who ran into a glass window on purpose. Their face was so beaten up and there was blood everywhere,” Cable said.

Although some may not realize it, inmates can actually have a job within the prison depending on the level of crime they committed. They still have someone who acts as a manager and supervises them, but they are given a chance to work and experience life outside of a cell, as well as a sense of purpose.

“They have the opportunity to work in the cafeteria, serve meals to others or sweep and keep everything looking clean,” Cable said.

Even though mentally-ill patients are housed separately in many prisons, they still get to interact with staff, counselors and even other inmates.

“Mentally-ill inmates would still pass notes to each other to try and communicate, and they also receive counseling,” Cable said. Inmates do the same things an ordinary person would do on a day-to-day basis, and some of their personalities and behaviors correspond to the average person.

“They worship, play games, watch TV, go to class, eat and work together just like people interact outside of prison. Also, like the people in a school, inmates don’t always see the world the same way. They may avoid each other or even fight based on their personalities,” the anonymous information technology specialist said.

Unfortunately, there are scenarios in which inmates may seriously lash out.

“There was an adult male inmate while I was working at the Ohio State Reformatory who killed his prison spouse while he was in prison. He was already on death row, and when investigators asked for an explanation as to why he killed her, he said he did it before the drug people got to her,” Cable said.

Overall, most inmates are not a whole lot different from the average person. Most of them still have the opportunities to go to academic classes, cook, clean, interact with each other and have some fun outside of the cell, whether that be playing games or going outside.

“I felt a sense of empathy toward inmates even when they had opposite beliefs as me. I realized they are normal people who just made bad choices,” Cable said.

About 650,000 people are released from a U.S. prison each year, according to the United States Department of Justice. No matter their backgrounds, they all face the same challenge: integration back into society and the prison system itself.

Immediately following release from imprisonment, former inmates bear the weighty responsibility of finding their place in a world that they were removed from. Behind jail walls, it is no secret that prisoners receive little to no life preparation that would reward them more capability in the outside world. This systemic flaw works against released inmates as they attempt to find employment and reliable housing.

“A lot of times, people who have been convicted of crimes are more or less powerless in society because of the lack of opportunities and options- even if they are somebody who wants to work and get their life back on track,” Criminal and Civil Law teacher Leslie Hosgood said.

Approximately 77 percent of freed convicts are rearrested within five years of being released, according to Simmons School of Social Work. When considering the roadblocks that stand in their ways, it’s no wonder that many freed inmates find themselves reincarcerated.

“Having a felony on your record does disqualify you for lots of services such as welfare or drug-training programs, which contributes to a lot of people ending up back in prison,” Hosgood said.

Federal laws complicating the processes of gaining rights such as employment, benefits, driving licenses and public housing are partly to blame for this revolving door within the country’s prison system as well. However, certain employers are beginning to hire ex-convicts, granting them an opportunity that might otherwise be difficult to come by. “Hot Chicken Takeover is hiring people who are excited to work,” said Cameron Williams, a longtime partner with the Columbus restaurant. Hot Chicken Takeover (HTC) believes in giving released inmates a second chance at their lives, providing anyone willing to work with stable employment and the ability to get their life back on track. This philosophy has made a tremendous difference in the lives of those coming from incarceration.

“One of our [HCT] values is growth orientation,” said Williams. “One woman, Shannon, came straight out of prison and is now our business manager.”

The Returning Home Ohio (RHO) program is also aiming to provide released inmates with a better chance at success. With one location in downtown Columbus, the program offers rent and utility assistance along with intensive case management for individuals as they transition from prison to the community.

“What the [RHO] program was designed to do is to reduce the recidivism rate for the reentry population,” program manager Stacy Griffiths said. “This program does work and it’s so important that our community knows that.”

According to Griffiths, the cost to keep their 21 clients in prison would be two to three times as much of the cost of the program, making the program more cost-effective for taxpayers while making a difference in the lives of the clients.

Despite employment opportunities such as those through HCT and the assistance provided by programs like RHO, released prisoners are still exposed to the roadblock of finding acceptance within society.

“I think there’s a lot of judgment, so when people are released nobody wants to live near them or offer them a job. People see them as undeserving of help or support,” Hosgood said.

Williams believes that when people call them felons, it makes them sound like totally different people, but when you talk to them, you can have compassion.

“Restored citizens is what we call them, because they’re coming out and the goal is to restore them,” Griffiths said.

If the system and society gave these people a better shot at success, it might be possible to see a brighter future for them and the world as a whole.

The first recorded use of the death penalty in the United States was back in 1608, in the colony of Jamestown, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. A little over 400 years later, much of America has changed. Yet, the death penalty still remains a possible punishment for convicted felons across 31 of the 50 states.

Although the number of executions have significantly decreased over the past 20 years, 56 percent of adults agree with the death penalty, as of 2015, according to Gale Cengage Learning.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP.org), on average, five percent of a state’s budget went into prisons or other correctional facilities as of 2015. A main opinion shared of people who are in support of the death penalty is that the government could save money if they weren’t providing shelter, food and other necessities for inmates with a life sentence.

“The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 716 for every 100,000. Moreover, while the United States represents only 4.4 percent of the world’s general population, it holds about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Now think about how much money is spent on the prison system. And who pays for the prisons? The taxpayer,” death penalty supporter junior Cesar Schanzenbach said.

In a poll according to Gale, 35 percent of people felt the death penalty is effective as a deterrent. Some students, at OOHS, agree that it is a reasonable punishment.

“It’s unfortunate that the death penalty exists, but I feel that it needs to because collectively as a society, we should punish individuals who choose to perform truly evil actions. The death penalty is fair when an individual (with clear intent) murders more than one person or commits crimes against humanity,” junior Meara Reeder said.

“The people convicted and sentenced to death have broken the social contract that is the fabric of our society and deserve punishment based on their crime,” Schanzenbach said.

Recently in the headlines, mistakes due to experiemental drugs show people dying in agony. The controversial question comes up: what is a humane way to execute people? “If we can’t fund or perform the lethal injection, we could revert to firing squad. This method is only used in Utah and Oklahoma as a secondary option, but some local politicians say it is the cheapest, most painless way of execution,” Schanzenbach said.

Although some people agree with the death penalty, they may believe that there is a certain way it should be done.

“When absolutely necessary, there is a humane way to kill someone. It would probably be lethal injection,” junior Daria Johansen said. 19 states out of the 50 states have dropped the death penalty as an option for punishment. According to Gale, 34 percent of Americans said death is not a viable option for punishment.

One common theme that arises from people against the death penalty, is the notion that when the death penalty is given, it essentially values one person’s life over another.

“No matter what someone does, they don’t deserve to die

for there crimes. They’re already punished enough by being put into jail anyway. I feel like a life-long jail sentence is much more punishment than just death because you’re literally in prison your whole life with death you’re just gone,” sophomore Sreya Tummalapalli said.

Also, another reason for abolishing capital punishment is the idea that revenge is not a humane way to think. According to Johansen, the “whole eye for an eye” mentality makes the whole world blind.

“No, revenge is not OK because it’s stooping down to the same level as someone who did something bad to you. You want to show that you are the better person,” Tummalapalli said.

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