MADISON — With so much in the news these days about violence in Mississippi prisons, it is difficult to tune in to any news or social media outlet and not hear someone advocating for prison reform. These conversations have brought me back in time to a place in my life that was dismal and difficult beyond description.
I know what it’s like inside the prison walls, and I know what those convicts are facing day in and day out because I served time in both medium- and maximum-security prisons.
In 1981 I was sentenced to four years in prison for conspiracy to invade a foreign country with the intent of overthrowing the government. Merle Haggard’s song “Mama Tried” tells the tale of a convict who “turned 21 in prison,” which pretty much describes my 21st birthday.
I am certain I have a unique perspective into prison life that almost none of my peers have, and it’s my peers whom I want to address in this column. Like you, I’m a white, well-educated, conservative Mississippian. But unlike you, I’m an ex-con who served time with some of the worst and most violent men society has to offer.
Quite often when the conversation turns to prison conditions or prison reform, I hear the same arguments. “Prisons need to be terrible places, so they don’t want to come back.” “Prison conditions should be harsh.” And my favorite, “Prisons are too much like country clubs.” I almost never chime in when I hear these statements, but I often wonder in amazement how such well-educated people can be so wrong.
Let me assure y’all, I served time in five different federal prisons, including the maximum-security U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta, and never did I see anything even remotely resembling a country club.
What I did see was a significant number of nonviolent convicts who really should never have been sent to prison for their crimes. The American justice system sees prisons as a panacea that will magically reduce crime, when in reality quite the opposite is happening. Society would have been much better served to punish many of these offenders with alternatives to prison.
In my time in prison, I found myself categorizing my fellow convicts into one of four categories.
1.Good people who had done wrong.
2.Bad people who had done bad things but were redeemable.
3.Bad people who were career criminals and not redeemable.
4.Sheer evil people who never needed to see the light of freedom ever again.
It is important to realize that these categories were not static. They were quite fluid and dynamic. Convicts from one category often moved to another category, and typically it was from a lesser category (less dangerous, more redeemable) to a greater category (more dangerous, less redeemable).
And here lies the crux of what I want my peers to understand. When you take human beings and expose them to dangerous and terrible prison conditions, what happens is they become worse, not better. They move from a lesser category to a higher category and become an even greater threat to society. They become bitter, angry and lose regard for human life.
Greater than 95 percent of convicts will someday be released to the streets. If we continue to operate our prison system in a manner that exposes convicts to horribly bad and dangerous conditions, it does nothing but promote violence within the prison system, which ultimately spills over to society when those convicts are released back onto the streets. Our prisons become crime factories under these conditions, and society pays a steep price monetarily, emotionally and physically when these bitter and dangerous convicts become ex-cons.
I encourage my white, conservative peers, and all our lawmakers, to listen to the perspective I’m offering and work to bring meaningful prison reform to our prison system. Because if we don’t, the alternative will do nothing more than continue to turn our prisons into highly efficient crime factories that churn out criminals who pose an even greater threat to our families and loved ones.
• George Malvaney is a Madison businessman and author. He has chronicled his life as an ex-Klansman, ex-mercenary, ex-felon and ex-convict who became a college graduate and environmental regulator in the book “Cups Up: How I Organized a Klavern, Plotted a Coup, Survived Prison, Fought Polluters and Started a Business.”