"Why do we punish?
It was a simple enough question, yet the answers did not come easily Tuesday night at Lycoming College where the Pennsylvania Prison Society engaged a local audience in a "community conversation" on that question.
The 224-year-old non-profit society is sponsoring a series of community conversations throughout the state to encourage a closer examination of the correctional system. Lycoming College's Department of Criminal Justice hosted the series' third session.
"What we are going to try to do, when we are finished with this series, is meld together comments from people across the state," William DiMascio, executive director, said. "We call these events community conversations in the hope that we can get you talking to one another. We didn't come here with a lot of answers."
The organization advocates on behalf of people in prison and their families and promotes humane, restorative punishment.
DiMascio highlighted some statistics about the federal and state correctional systems.
The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population is in this country, he said.
At the state level, spending on corrections nearly doubled from $34 billion to $66 billion between 1995 and 2005, he said.
"In fact in Pennsylvania, the budget keeps increasing even while aid to education is being cut," he said. "The corrections budget for operations alone is close to $2 billion per year."
According to DiMascio, nearly 50 percent of all individuals released from prison will wind up back in the system within three years.
"Why do we seem so intent on punishing, almost to the extent that we ignore recidivism rates (which) show really how ineffective we are," he said.
Audience members engaged in a dialogue with one another about the issues, some wondering if the money would be better spent on prevention, treatment and education programs, especially for non-violent offenders.
"Education is the one thing that has proven to be a deterrent," DiMascio said, agreeing with many members of the audience.
Transition and recidivism go hand in hand.
DiMascio called attention to the difficult transition process once a person is released from prison. He said parole violations account for 17 percent of the incarcerated population.
One man in the audience identified himself as a convicted felon and spoke about the difficulties of life post-release, specifically finding a job since his recent release from the federal prison in Allenwood.
"It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a second to lose it," he said.
Convicted of wire fraud, he has a significant amount of restitution to repay, but despite multiple college degrees he cannot find an employer willing to hire a convicted felon, nor one who will pay more than minimum wage. Rather than help him find a job, he said his probation officer signed him up to receive food stamps.
Others speaking from experience working with inmates and the recently released agreed that his story is not uncommon, citing the difficulties of transitioning back into life outside of prison.
DiMascio spoke about the demands placed on a recently released prisoner, reporting to the probation officer within 48 hours, paying for probation, paying for court costs, paying for restitution, yet most have little way to pay for those services or to find employment that will allow them to do so.
"You need to call a person to account when they do something wrong, but do so in a way that we don't savage them for the rest of their lives," he said.
Though DiMascio kept politics out of his discussion of the correctional system, members of the audience spoke about electing quality officials and ensuring the public fully investigates candidates before voting.
Correcting voter apathy, most agreed, is the only way to bring changes to the way society punishes and provide hope for changing the system into one of corrections rather than punishment.
"We don't call it a bureau or department of punishment," DiMascio said. "We call it the department of corrections."