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Why Prisoners Should Have Access to Microsoft Word


One of the most important concepts we advocate for in the world of prison education is the idea that inmates need to be prepared to be reintegrated back into the communities from which they came.  They need to be employable, centered, and have a greater likelihood of success in the modern world.  This should be the primary goal of prison, and the direct objective of prison education.

Simple Inexpensive Changes Can Reduce Recidivism

While there are many potential changes that can improve the likelihood of inmate rehabilitation and post-release success (e.g., reinstating Pell Grants, which could expand college courses in prison), there are also seemingly less significant changes as well -- small changes that can make a difference in the lives of prisoners for when they are released from custody.  These simply changes could result in reduced recidivism rates, but more importantly, make it possible for inmates to succeed after a term of incarceration.

An Idea Promulgated by an Incarcerated Student

Not long ago, Christopher Zoukis spoke of his personal experiences taking college courses through TRULINCS -- an email system that he uses to draft his school papers.  His article ‘College Studies from Prison: How I Draft My College Papers Using The Federal Bureau of Prisons' TRULINCS Computers’ starts off with the following sentence: "Federal prisoners do not have access to word processors."

The rest of the article is about TRULINCS and how he takes his college courses, but that first sentence stands out.  Why do prisoners not have access to Microsoft Word or Open Office or any of the other word processors that are available either for free on most computers, or as a premium software that is available to the public?

Basic Workforce Preparation

One of the most important skills that a person can have in this computer age is the ability to use programs like Microsoft Word, and the rest of Microsoft Office, for that matter.  Indeed, it's practically expected that individuals be proficient at Microsoft Word prior to entering the workforce.  This is why American middle and high schools require students to learn these skills prior to graduating, and why most state colleges have a technology proficiency requirement in their students' freshman year.

Simply allowing access to these programs would, in theory, give inmates yet another skill to help with their future employment -- a change that would be very small and simple, yet reduce recidivism through more hands-on, employment-focused learning.

It's Time for a Change to Be Made

Perhaps there is some minimal level of risk that prison administrators see which keeps them from offering such prison education programs in their institutions.  But this seems unlikely, in large part due to the existence of programs like the Federal Bureau of Prisons' TRULINCS program, which the vast majority of federal inmates have access to.  Preventing access to Microsoft Word, or even free word processing programs like Open Office, needlessly prevents inmates from learning skills that could help keep them out of prison in the future.  It's another example of a simple change that can make a significant difference.

Allow prisoners to use word processing programs like Microsoft Word.  Allow them to succeed.


Practicing Religion in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

Any inmate who wishes to practice his or her religious tradition while confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is generally permitted to do so, subject to several penological restrictions.

Inmates' Right to Practice Religion

The right to free exercise of religion guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment applies to everyone, even those confined in federal prison.  Likewise, the First Amendment protection against state-sponsored religion, the Establishment Clause, also applies in the prison context.

While these constitutional rights are not absolute, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has promulgated federal regulations and program statements that aim to carry out these tenets against the backdrop of modern prison security and management goals.  Generally, the BOP has achieved this goal, but inmates should be mindful of several sticking points that must be dealt with.

For example, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons will endeavor to ensure that inmates whose religion requires a special diet -- say, Jewish and Muslim prisoners who request Kosher and Halal foods, respectively -- have access to such diets, those who seek a special diet because their religious leaders suggest it might not be accommodated.  The laws governing such matters are many.

Federal Bureau of Prisons Chaplains

Most BOP facilities have a Religious Services Department, known as the chapel.  Generally, these areas are in a dedicated location and supervised by Federal Bureau of Prisons chaplaincy staff.  In a typical prison facility, there will be two to four chaplains.  Most chaplains are ordained members of a religious group and are required to have had a certain level of divinity or religious studies education.  This could include Christian ministers, Catholic priests, Muslim clerics, and rabbis (as of this writing, there is one Buddhist chaplain in the BOP's 200 plus facilities, and no Wiccan or Pagan ones).

Group Worship

Most chapels have several rooms of various sizes in which scheduled religious services are held.  Generally, all of the major religious groups have at least one worship service per week, as do lesser-known traditions when there are inmates requesting such group access.  For example, practitioners of Santeria, Buddhism, and Hinduism are less common in the Federal Bureau of Prisons; as such, worship time for such groups is dependent on local demand.

When space and staff permit, many BOP facilities will also allow groups to meet for religious study periods.  Such provisions and space are, at least in theory, required to be parceled out in "equal" fashion, but most observers would conclude that some groups are more equal than others.  For example, some institutions will allow each group a one-hour study period, and then offer "open prayer" sessions that are effectively de facto religious services for a single group.

Individual Worship

There are very few restrictions placed on Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates who choose to exercise their religious practices in solitary fashion.  While there can be significant restrictions on property and cell decor, those who choose to practice in the privacy of their cell are generally left alone.  Practice in "public" location, like the recreation yard, is also permitted.  However, unauthorized groups will usually be ordered to disperse.  In many institutions, for example, Muslim inmates are permitted to perform daily prayers wherever they choose, but even small groups will not be tolerated.

Every BOP inmate is permitted to request religious holy days, in which they are relieved of work assignments, consistent with their stated religious preferences.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons keeps an annual master calendar of such days, but less-familiar religious holidays can be recognized upon application.

Many BOP chapels also offer religious libraries and even DVD viewing stations for personal study.  As to religious property, inmates may purchase religious items (e.g., kufi caps, yarmulkes, crosses, etc.) via a special purchase program.

It should be noted that inmates whose religion seems overlooked are encouraged to speak to chaplaincy staff and utilize the administrative remedy program to ensure proper recognition, especially when one practices a lesser-known religion.


Educate Prisoners with Life Sentences and on Death Row

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison education is a controversial subject due to strong emotions on both sides of the issue.  But it's also an issue that has been the subject of a significant amount of published research -- all of which supports the education of prisoners.  According to the research, prison education has a marked effect on reducing recidivism, the likelihood of a released inmate returning to crime, and, eventually, prison.  Enhanced access to prison education has proven to benefit society through reduced corrections costs, lowered crime and victimization, and improved community and public safety.

Almost all of the public discussion concerning prison education focuses on the substantial reductions in recidivism that educational programming in prisons produces.  While certainly a vital component of the public dialogue on the issue, it causes lesser, yet relevant, components to fall by the wayside.  For example, should prisoners that are unlikely to be released from custody due to a life sentence or death penalty sentence also have access to educational opportunities?  Should state or federal funding be used for these prisoners knowing that they may never be able to use this education outside of prison?  Should such programming be barred from them since they will never have a chance to recidivate, and, thus, this vastly important social benefit of prison education becomes a non-issue?

They should, and for several reasons.

Reductions in recidivism dominates the public's dialogue on prison education.  It is the correctional education's primary lobbying and belief conversion point.  But outside of reductions in recidivism, prison education fulfills additional goals, and, thus, providing education to inmates with life sentences and death sentences has merit for a number of reasons:

  • ·         Reductions in Prisoner Violence

Research in this area has proven that prison education reduces instances of prison misconduct and violence -- a serious prison culture and administration problem that costs correctional authorities, and through them American taxpayers, many millions of dollars every year on enhanced security components and inmate misconduct adjudication.  Inmates need a healthy outlet for their time.  Allowing them to continue their education on the inside gives them a tremendously productive and pro-social activity.  This can transform minds and impact all who pass through the prison system, not solely those who engage in educational programming.  Such achievements also lower the risk of staff and inmate injuries due to violence and stress related illnesses.

Click to read more ...


Hot Texas Heat Kills Prisoners In Their Cells, So What? Say Lawmakers 

Lawmakers in Texas on Tuesday defended the lack of air-conditioning in state prisons after a report linked 19 inmate deaths to extreme heat.

A study released by the University of Texas Law School's Human Rights Clinic warned that the state was violating the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the human rights of inmates by refusing to put air-conditioning in prisons.

Data collected from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) showed the temperatures inside facilities like Hutchins State Jail could reach as high as 105 degrees in summer months. The Young Turks hosts Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian break it down.


Shaming Offenders Misses the Point; Rehabilitate Them

By Christopher Zoukis

Over the past several years, a number of criminal justice and social commentators have discussed the idea of shaming or guilting as an alternative sanction for minor criminal wrongdoing.  They have suggested that shaming or guilting is less expensive, more effective, and allows the offender to stay in the community -- thus enabling them to continue to work, take care of their children, and try to make amends for their crimes.  While the ideas of shaming and guilting are an interesting form of social chastisement, they miss the point by simply making the criminal feel bad about their actions, while failing to treat them for what ills them.  This might make us feel better since the lawbreaker is receiving just deserts (retribution for their crimes), but fails to fix the problem in the first place.  And this places Americans in a precarious position: feeling good about the shaming of the offender, but leaving us with a false sense of security since the underlying problem has not been resolved.

Several years back, in a Boston Globe essay entitled "Shame Is Worth a Try," Dan Kahan suggested that offenders should be shamed for their crimes, and that these shamings will change the offender's behavior and make them no longer engage in such activities.  He supported his belief by stating that the "sanctions are much cheaper than jail" and "allow the offender to continue earning an income so he can compensate his victim, meet his child-support obligations, and the like."  Kahan argued that "shame is cheap and effective and frees up scarce prison space for the most serious offenses."

The examples presented by Kahan are colorful and intriguing, particularly for victims of crime.  Employees in Wisconsin who steal from their employers "might be ordered to wear a sandwich board proclaiming [their] offense[s]."  In Florida and Texas, drunk drivers "might be required to place conspicuous 'DUI' bumper stickers on [their] car[s]."  And in Virginia, a person who refuses to "make [] child support payments," might "find that [their] vehicle has been immobilized with an appropriately colored boot (pink if the abandoned child is a girl, blue if a boy)."  For many, such punishments bring a warm sense of retribution for the offender getting what's coming to them.  After all, who doesn't want to see a deadbeat dad held accountable for his failure to pay for his own children or a person convicted of a DUI forced to slap bright orange bumper stickers to their car proclaiming that they are a drunk?

Click to read more ...


Re-Entry Programs

Watch the first 2 minutes of Coming Home: The CARE Program, a documentary film produced by Bucknell University students for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The film focuses on a community-assisted re-entry program in the district.


Former Ohio Corrections Director Helps Released Inmates: Terry Collins Re-Entry Center a Success

By Christopher Zoukis

It isn't often you hear about corrections officials standing up in public and declaring that inmates who inhabit our prisons and jails are mostly people who "made a mistake that can be fixed."  It's probably even more rare to hear about one of them retiring from the prison industry and continuing to work toward helping prisoners stay out of prison, not keeping them in.

Yet, that's what has happened in Ohio: former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Terry Collins, made his comments at the grand opening of a new multipurpose facility designed to help ex-offenders make it in the community.

Collins was so invested in the idea that prisoners could be rehabilitated that before retiring as director four years ago, he was known for saying "We need to stop sending people to prison because we're mad at them."  And now, the new re-entry facility in Chillicothe bears his name, The Terry Collins Re-Entry Center.

Unlike many other high-level public corrections officials who fill their retirements with consulting jobs in the private prison industry or professional correctional associations, Collins hasn't missed a beat in his lifelong quest to provide education and support to those leaving prison -- rather than keeping them locked down, mere fodder for an ever growing prison industry that right now cages more than 2 million men, women, and children.

To learn more about the Terry Collins Re-Entry Center read The Columbus Dispatch's article "New center to help inmates move from prison to society opens."


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