Stormville, New York – Green Haven Correctional Facility is bounded by towering, concrete walls, sentry posts and razor wire, but they have not stopped a debate about much-needed prison reforms from reaching the 2,200 inmates within.
Inside the maximum security complex for killers, drug dealers and others, word of US President Barack Obama’s effort to tackle a mass incarceration system that jails some 2.3 million people has raised hopes of change.
“I would allow the president to do what he wants to do, but it’s the Republicans that say no,” former gangster Reynaldo Perez, 40, who still has 11 years left to serve on his 33-year life sentence for murder and manslaughter, told Al Jazeera.
Cocaine dealer Tony Windley, 41, received two life sentences in 2006 for drugs and gun offences. He keeps abreast of changes to the mandatory minimum sentencing rules that put him inside for at least 20 years before he can get parole.
“I don’t know if my sentence was justified or not. I know there were victims, because of the drugs. And I know that I’m a different person today than I was back then,” Windley said.
“You need to think about what you’re getting out of the punishment.”
US criminal justice
The US has five percent of the world’s population, but more than a quarter of its prisoners. It locks up more people than the top 35 European countries combined, and four times the rate of China.
It is a relatively recent shift, after politicians on both sides of Congress tried to lower crime rates by passing mandatory sentencing laws, particularly for non-violent crimes in the war on drugs. Since 1980, the US prison population has quadrupled.
Such unenviable statistics are increasingly viewed as problematic – not least because of the colour of most detainees’ skin. Blacks and Latinos make up 30 percent of America’s population; but 60 percent of its inmates.
Cells are often filled with drug addicts, non-violent petty criminals or the mentally disturbed. Many serve sentences that are so long that they often lose any chance for rehabilitation. The system is also costly – $80bn a year.
Outsiders highlight problems too. Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said that far too many US prisoners – as many as 25,000 – are kept in solitary confinement for weeks, and even years, at a time.
“Depending on the specific conditions and the duration of the system, it does amount to cruel and inhuman treatment at least. And in some cases, the severity is sufficient that it can become torture,” he told Al Jazeera.
But reformers, such as Max Kenner, who runs in-prison courses for Bard College, say things are changing.
“Criminal justice is a unique issue in American life in that there really is trans-partisan consensus that we have to do things differently,” said Kenner. “How we do things differently is a little more contentious, but not as much as you might think.”
This year, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit a prison as he kick-started a reform process that has led to the early release of some 6,000 inmates jailed for drug crimes, and could see many more walk free.
In rare examples of cross-party unity, Republicans and Democrats are proposing legislation to reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders. One draft law would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time offenders.
The main Democratic candidates for the presidency in 2016 – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – speak of the need for change. Even Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is considering lighter sentences for cannabis dealers and other low-level offenders.
Some say that educating inmates is one answer. Prisoners with access to a college education while behind bars are 43 percent less likely to go back to jail after their release, says a RAND Corporation study.
At Green Haven, Perez and Windley study in the Bard Prison Initiative. While much of the sprawling prison complex is bleak, their classroom is decorated with pot plants and colourful paintings of tropical birds.
In one lesson, Al Jazeera watched Windley debate the merits of sending aid to Africa with fellow students. Around the classroom were books about neoliberalism, macroeconomics and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
“It’s revitalising,” said Perez, a Puerto Rican who has converted to Islam and developed a penchant for Greek mythology. “I feel like I’ve been brought back to life, like somebody performed CPR on me.”
Bard College prisoners made headlines this year when they beat undergraduates from the prestigious Harvard College in a debating contest.
From next year, more prisoners will be able to study in prison, thanks to the Obama administration’s re-introduction of education grants for inmates that were scrapped by Congress in 1994.
“It’s cost effective. Every dollar spent on education in prison gives a $4-5 saving, mostly from people not re-offending after their release,” Fred Patrick, an expert at the Vera Institute of Justice, a policy and research body, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a win-win for the safety of officers, prisoners and the facilities; and also for the taxpayer, because inmates return home as educated, critical thinkers who can get jobs, pay taxes and take care of themselves and their families.”
Patrick backs other changes, such as the “ban the box” campaign to discourage employers from asking whether jobseekers have criminal convictions – making it easier for them to get work and stay out of trouble.
But there is much to be done at the “front end” of the criminal justice system, he added. Too many people get stuck in local jails, on pre-trial detention for minor offences, and are then sucked into the prison system.
Many of them are homeless, too poor to afford bail, or have mental health issues, he said. If they are no threat to public safety, they could be “diverted” into other government-run schemes that are cheaper than prisons.
‘Steps in the right direction’
Reformers point to difficulties changing a bloated system that encompasses 211,000 federal prisons, 646,000 local jails and 1.4 million state prisons. Change involves politicians at all levels of government, they say.
Rebecca Vallas, from the Center for American Progress, said that criminal records are so common that more than 33 million children have a parent with one. They are likely to grow up poorer and less stable than others.
Politicians and Obama administration officials are taking “steps in the right direction”, she told Al Jazeera, but the nation has a “long way to go before the era of mass incarceration comes to an end”.
“There’s trans-partisan agreement that we can’t afford to be tough on crime anymore,” Vallas said. “We need to be smart on crime, which means constructing a criminal justice system that’s fair, equitable, evidence based and enhances public safety.”
Back in Green Haven, inmates wearing green overalls discussed reforms to US prisons and their chances of securing an early release. Once outside, Windley plans to help troubled men who, like him, lacked a father figure growing up.
“I’ve got seven years left. I want to go into human services or counselling and help people who struggle, like I struggled when I was a youth,” Windley said. “It would be something I love doing. But I have to be realistic, and may have to work in a McDonald’s or a supermarket.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl