Former governor talks prison re-entry, reform

Fomer governor James E. McGreevey spoke in the Mercer Room on Sept. 28 about prison reform in America.
Fomer governor James E. McGreevey spoke in the Mercer Room on Sept. 28 about prison reform in America.

By Gianluca D’Elia

Long after resigning from his position as Governor of New Jersey in 2004, Hon. James E. McGreevey discovered a new passion: prison reform and re-entry. In his address to the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics on Sept. 28, the former governor stressed the importance of changing American correctional facilities.

McGreevey said there are three important factors that will improve prisons: addiction treatment, a better effort to change behaviors, and educational training.

“We spend $74 billion a year on an enterprise that has, at best, a 1/3 success rate,” McGreevey said. “Instead of spending $74 billion on prisons that have a 2/3 failure rate, why don’t we get better treatment at a fraction of that cost that treats the systemic causes of criminal behavior?”

The former governor said he believes much of what happens in American prisons is a result of earlier mistakes, including but not limited to failed education systems, poor after-school programs and inadequate healthcare. He pointed out a shocking statistic: 66 to 68 percent of ex-prisoners return to jail within 5 years for a new felony.

“We have to look deeper at this problem,” McGreevey said. “70 percent of people behind bars are addicts or alcoholics. Only 11 percent receive treatment. So 89 percent of that 70 percent are sleepwalking, fighting or cursing their way through prison.”

McGreevey encouraged the audience to think about the reality of addiction. There has always been an opiate addiction crisis in America, especially in urban areas, but McGreevey argued that many Americans did not wake up to this fact until addiction spread into white suburbs. He said the rate of overdose in areas such as Ocean and Cape May County is “shocking and sad.”

“Addiction is a disease that needs to be treated,” said McGreevey. “We can spend $45,000 a year to incarcerate somebody, or we can spend a fraction of that cost on addiction treatment.”

Changing behaviors is also an important part of prison reform, he said. Almost every psychological study of prisons says inmates’ behavior and psychological health are worsened by their experiences in prison.

He asked the audience, “If you’re trying to change people’s behavior – people that have been arrested for the first time – would you put them in a facility with people who have engaged in the worst acts of the community? If you want to change people’s behavior, why would you put them in a place where the behavior of everyone around them is substantially worse?”

The third area that McGreevey believes prisons are failing in is quality education and re-entry programs which focuses on the futures of prisoners after their release, and helps them integrate into civil society.

“How are we helping people to market themselves when they come out of prison?” he asked. “The reality is, people who have spent more than 16 years behind bars don’t even know how to work a computer.”

McGreevey, who is currently the executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program, says Hudson County is working to make improvements. Treatment starts behind bars. Upon release, former prisoners go through intensive outpatient treatment programs, and live in sobriety houses with strict rules and thorough education and employment training.

“McGreevey talked about the importance of second chances,” said junior public relations major Valerie Bell. “Those are crucial because we all make mistakes.”

McGreevey stressed that America has to approach justice differently, and that addiction treatment, changing behaviors, and improving reentry programs should be the preferred course of action for a better success rate in prisons.

“We are all precious and valuable,” McGreevey said. “When we throw away 2 million of our fellow citizens, that’s a high cost to America’s conscience, it’s a high cost to productivity, and we can simply do better.”

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