Bonner Scholars host panel on prison reform

Elizabeth Montiel-Alvarado, Campus Carrier staff writer

Lily Verren, Campus Carrier staff writer

The Bonner Scholars Program hosted a panel on Nov. 10 that discussed reforming the prison system and breaking the cycle of mass incarceration. The discussion panelists were Patrick Rodriguez, formerly incarcerated prison reform activist; Holly Bradfield, professor of sociology at Berry; and Thom Ratkos, assistant professor of psychology at Berry. 

The discussion first began with reform in America and how or why there is a need. The three panelists each answered with differing opinions.

“I don’t dream of reform, and I think we should set our sights a little higher,” Ratkos said. 

Instead of changing the way the current system is implemented, Ratkos said the whole criminal justice system should be reviewed. 

“If we are trying to imagine a better world, I don’t imagine a better world where prisons exist,” Ratkos said. 

Ratkos recommended the audience to read the narrative The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula Le Guin, and Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, for more insight into the problems that incarcerated people face. 

“We are currently living under the results of a strategy that we’re enacted a long time ago,” Ratkos said. “I don’t think the history of prison is a history of reform.” 

According to a study from Stanford University, “Dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates. Nationally, 68 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma.” 

Rather than completely doing away with prisons, Rodriguez said smaller reforms need to be made. 

“Would it be strategically plausible and feasible for us to imagine an abolitionist world?” Rodriguez said. “Or would it be strategically sound for us to begin implementing strategies that enact progressive policy that push forward change as it reacts to prison reform?” 

According to the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2016, 43% of state and 23% of federal prisoners had a history of a mental health problem.

 “Dealing with how trauma leads to criminal actions, which affects children, is a large part [of reducing incarceration],” Bradfield said.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, each additional adverse experience a child experiences increases the risk of becoming a serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offender by 35, when controlling for other risk factors for criminal behavior.

“Having mental health issues in prison is tough,” Rodriguez said.

Psychiatric facilities are similar to prisons, especially those that specialize in incarcerated healthcare, and public attitudes towards those in prisons with mental health conditions makes it incredibly difficult to rebuild one’s life after imprisonment, especially on top of the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated people. 

Imprisonment can exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions through sheer distress, as well. The BJS reported as well in 2016 that about 14% of state and 8% of federal prisoners met the threshold for past 30-day serious psychological distress. 

When asked what steps could be taken to begin reforming prisons on a local and national scale, Rodriguez introduced Eric Gonzales, a district attorney outside of Brooklyn, New York.

 “What he did as a step to dramatically reduce the amount of people on probation and parole was, he did a point and merit system,” Rodriguez said. 

Despite Rodriguez’s presence at the panel, he continues to be on parole. 

“There is no way for my merits to be measured, for me to come off any amount early,” Rodriguez said. “[With a merit system], the definition of justice would be to make someone pay their debts to society.” 

Toward the end of the panel, a student asked what a deterrent for crime would be if prisons were taken away. 

“Prisons don’t deter crime,” Rodriguez said. “Strong communities, connections with others, and not having the things you need to live separated from you by force, is what does.” 

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