The Washington County Jail looks a lot like the prison in the HBO show “Oz,” though it is clean, almost sterile. The inmates look like people you might meet at a park or see at the supermarket, except for the fact that they are wearing bright orange jumpsuits. One stands out. She is young, petite, and stunningly beautiful. She approaches with a smile on her face, “Hi, I’m Olivia Matheny.”
She’s 21 and has been in and out of jail since she was 18 on drug and robbery charges and parole violations. Matheny continues, “What’s frustrating is that I’ll come here and get sober, but then I’ll get out and go back to drugs. Every time I get here, I beat myself up and promise myself that this time will be the last, but it never is. That’s the definition of insanity, right?” She shakes her head in frustration and chagrin.
When asked about her current legal situation, she replies with resignation, “Well, you know, Measure 11.” Oregon’s Measure 11 was a citizen’s initiative passed in the November 1994 general election that established mandatory minimum sentencing for several categories of crimes, including robbery.
A judge cannot give a lesser sentence than the one Measure 11 mandates, sentences cannot be reduced for good behavior, and there is no parole prior to the end of the mandatory sentence. Matheny faces a mandatory sentence of seven years. If convicted, she will be almost 30 when she emerges from prison.
Sergeant Vance Stimler, a Washington County Jail Information Officer who has worked for the jail for 19 years, observes, “It’s hard to watch sometimes. I mean, it just makes you sad. The biggest challenge all of these people are going to face upon release is that they’re returning to the same situation they were in before . . . same friends, same problems, the same everything, so Matheny returns to the same habits. That’s not how this should work.”
The American criminal justice system is in crisis. Spurred by political imperatives and socioeconomic trends, U.S. courts over-sentenced Americans to prison over a 40-year period beginning in the 1980s, leading to overcrowded conditions, burgeoning expenses, and devastated impoverished communities
It is a system focused more on warehousing criminals than rehabilitating them, leading to crushing rates of recidivism. As of July 2015, the United States had 698 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. The next closest industrialized nation is Russia with 463. The U.S. also had the largest total number of prisoners in 2014, roughly 2.2 million. The bloated system, with federal prison costs of over $80 billion, eats up a third of the Justice Department’s budget, with the prison population increasing by 800 percent since 1980 at a time when the overall U.S. population grew by about one third.
The U.S. has focused too much on the length punishment and not enough on reintegrating criminals into society. For example, a study by the Justice Policy Institute compared U.S. criminal justice policies to those in Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Finland and Germany and determined that the U.S. sentences people to prison at six times the rate of other developed nations, many of which use fines and community-based programs to divert citizens from prison. For those sent to prison, the average sentence length in the U.S. is 63 months, compared to Australia (36 months) and Germany (12-24 months).
Stacie Beckerman is a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Portland who formerly served as the Assistant United States Attorney. Although she believes in the necessity of incarceration, she also believes that most of the goals of the criminal justice system can be satisfied by short prison sentences.
“The lengthy, now commonplace, prison sentences are simply too long, too expensive, and do not support the important goal of rehabilitation and reentry in the community,” Beckerman says.
The Washington County Jail has 582 beds. Around 17,000 people per year pass through. The jail is made up of mostly single-person cells, but four cells contain double beds. Men and women are housed in separate units, along with a distinct ‘Special Needs Unit’ (SNU) only for men.
In the SNU about 40 men converse as they eat their lunches under the supervision of a female deputy (who will not be identified in this article). When asked about how her gender affects her work, she replies, “Working here has risks and you have to be prepared. Sometimes in tussles, women just have to prove more. I had a guy charge me out of the shower once and I had him cuffed before backup could arrive. Oh, and female deputies also have to deal with men exposing themselves in front of them.”
Fred Sly is the co-founder and program director of the Oregon Prison Project (OPP), a non-profit organization that aims to increase community safety by teaching non-violent communication skills to incarcerated and previously-incarcerated individuals. OPP also provides opportunities for inmates to develop leadership techniques and to teach non-violent communication to their peers. “We have a punitive justice system,” Sly says. “Restorative justice restores the empathic connection between offenders, victims, and the rest of society. If you aren’t teaching people that, then you aren’t being effective at restoring relationships.”
According to Sly and other prisoner advocacy groups, prisoners need education, skills and job training to help break the cycles of poverty that put many of them behind bars in the first place. A study by the Rand Corporation indicates that educational and vocational training in prisons reduces recidivism and improves the post-prison job outlook. An inmate who receives an education while incarcerated is 43 percent less likely to return to prison and is 13 percent more likely to find a job after prison. This number goes to 28 percent for inmates who receive vocational training. Notwithstanding the clear evidence of the efficacy of prison-based educational and vocational programs, funds for such programs have steadily decreased in recent years.
The system puts entire communities in a state of perpetual hardship. By age 18, one in four African-American children will have had a parent incarcerated. The majority of U.S. prisoners in federal correctional facilities are of African-American origin even though African-Americans account for only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Beckerman, the Portland-based judge, has witnessed the effects of her work on both the convicted offenders and the families of those incarcerated.
“Watching the people that I have sent to prison and how their lives are wholly impacted by incarceration has changed my view of the criminal justice system,” Beckerman says. “I’ve witnessed families being destroyed by incarceration. Kids who lose their fathers or mothers to prison at a young age oftentimes end up in the criminal justice systems themselves.”
An estimated 68 million Americans have a criminal record, more than the population of France. Given the massive collateral consequences of a conviction, particularly for a felony, the enduring impact on society of mass incarceration is significant. Drug-related felonies often result in eviction from public housing, a ban on participation in food stamp programs, a prohibition on holding public office, loss of a driver’s license, and loss of the right to vote or to serve in the military. Ex-prisoners become second class citizens with their prospects in life severely circumscribed, creating a vicious cycle of alienation from society, crime, prison, and then further alienation.
Aliza Kaplan, a Professor at Lewis and Clark Law School and the President and Co-Founder of the Oregon Innocence Project (OIP), notes, “Our system is broken and unjust, especially for people of color and poor people.” She adds, “the more we learn, the more we need to make changes so that everyone is going through a fair system. We need to see people in a different light–as people.”
Remarkably, given the overall national political climate, there is substantial consensus among liberals and conservatives about what should be done about mass incarceration. There is agreement about the need for federal action to reduce mandatory sentences, de-criminalize minor drug offenses, and reduce the reliance on private prison providers. In addition, many politicians now support providing better educational and vocational training of prisoners and reducing some of the stigma of being an ex-prisoner. The move by Virginia governor Terry Mcauliffe to restore voting rights to some 200,000 Virginia felons has been hailed by many and criticized by others, but it shows the dramatic change that a single government leader can make.
Sergeant Stimler notes, “Before working here, I had wanted to help people through law enforcement. Seeing this mass incarceration has definitely made me more cynical and less trusting. You learn to make decisions off of gut instinct and you know, sometimes you’re wrong, but you have to trust yourself. You just have to. I’m more aware now of the problems with drugs and mental health in society. When people have such blatant mental health issues, it just makes you stop and wonder whether this is really the best place for those people to be.”
Two months later, Matheny was sentenced and is currently serving 24 months for “Second Degree Robbery” and “Unlawful Use of Heroin.” Her story is one of many tragedies in an American system that is failing to give individuals the tools they need to restart their lives, instead opting to lock them up and hope for the best.
As Matheny puts it, “The other weird thing is that when you hear about jail, it should be this scary thing. But now, to me, it feels like home. Many of us here look at jail like it’s just another part of our lives. Not a fun part, but a part.”