by James Lamont
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To reflect on how successful the prison regime in Texas, USA, has been.
Preparation and materials
- Have available some images of typical prisoners, in orange jumpsuits and so on, and the means to display them during the assembly.
- Have available the song ‘You gotta be’ by Des’ree and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- If I were to ask you to imagine the criminal justice system in Texas, a few images would probably come to mind. Overcrowded, violent jails. Gangs. Executions.
More recently, however, Texas has been at the centre of a remarkable new approach to crime and punishment, one that is seeing the number of prisoners fall dramatically and former offenders reintegrated into society and having new opportunities and hope.
- The Texan attitude to crime and punishment is simple: support people who obey the law and punish those who don’t. After being released from jail, however, they can be welcomed back into society, provided they respect its laws and values.
- For years, this approach translated into one thing – more prisons. Prisons are expensive, however, and Texas is famous for low taxes and limited government. Something had to give.
- In 2007, Republican state congressman Jerry Madden was appointed to a position that meant he took a leading role in the prisons system. His boss told him not to build any more prisons. They were too expensive.
- In a bid to cut the number of prisons while staying true to conservative values, which place guilt mainly on the individual rather than society, Madden and his team looked to the Christian ideas of forgiveness and generosity and put some measures in place. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, for example, helps prisoners take an MBA-level course and matches them to mentors outside the prison. The organization sees prisoners, such as drug-dealers and gang members, as having the potential to be business successes and combines education and support in business with a moral and spiritual education. Graduates of the PEP often then mentor new members and, thus, the system supports itself.
Similarly, the schemes for drug users combine support and kindness with a hard edge. Those who fall behind are punished, sometimes with a short stretch in prison, but they remain within a supportive community.
Time for reflection
When he took office, Madden expected to gain an additional 17,000 prisoners. This increase has been avoided and, in fact, Texas has been able to close three prisons. This is a remarkable achievement in a state that is notoriously tough on crime. Love and compassion, combined with high expectations of criminals, have saved the people of Texas a lot of money and given new leases of life to people who would previously have spent much of their lives in prison.
I wonder how we could apply this approach in school today? Perhaps when you ask someone to do something, you could get across that you expect them to do it well, to the best of their ability, rather than just any old how . . .
Perhaps, similarly, when you are asked to do something, you can respond by doing it as well as you possibly can, rather than just thinking, ‘That’ll do.’
Perhaps you could expect the best of your parents or the people who look after you rather than the worst.
Perhaps, today, you could decide as a group to do that? I wonder how that might change the school environment and your home life?
‘You gotta be’ by Des’ree