Last issue I invited our incarcerated readers to respond to this question: Should mass incarceration across this country be addressed as a human rights catastrophe? Here are some relevant responses.

“Prisoners are People! Even violent offenders are human beings entitled to be treated with the same level of dignity as any human expects for him/herself. “

– MR. V.W. Heisher, New Jersey

“Has the prison system, as it stands promoted a standard that is conducive to life in larger freedom? I would say no, but as any alcoholic knows, the first step is admitting you need help. America needs help, because the cost to American citizens is beyond the pale!”

– Omar R. Wilkins, Iowa

“Incarcerated Men and Women should be treated as people and given tools needed to thrive, because most of the Human Beings inside these prisons will be returned home one day.”

– Micah Matthews, Iowa

I want to thank all who contacted me with your thoughts. However, there was a letter that stuck out to me more, which is a very sincere and complete analysis of the question. Please refer below.

Response by Richard Thomas Watkins, Michigan

Dear Mrs. Conley,

My name is Richard Thomas Watkins and I am currently a prisoner in the Michigan Department of Corrections serving a life sentence for second degree murder. I am now 50 years old and have been incarcerated for 25 years. I have a parole hearing the week of August 23…though it is more of a “lifer review” here in Michigan where lifers are concerned. Still, I am hopeful, how can I not be?!

I am writing to you today because yesterday I received a copy of the “Inside Designed Conviction The Magazine” in the mail. I have no idea where your organization got my name but I am thankful. From what I have read it seems that your organization is truly reaching out to us and aiding us in the development of our talent. Though that is not the reason I am writing to you at all. I read your story “We Need More Chris Wilsons” and was very intrigued by the question you posted. “Should mass incarceration across the country be addressed as a human rights catastrophe?” You asked for our thoughts so I would like to share mine with you. 

I do believe that the mass incarceration across the country is a catastrophe but not for the reasons one might think, and I do believe “we” are picking the wrong fight. Lawmakers continue to make, and uphold, the laws that send people to prison because they simply don’t want to be responsible for allowing “hardened criminals” to be on the streets where they can commit more crimes and hurt more people. That is a sad truth that many do not want to face. They ask for prison reform in the guise of lighter sentences and shorter prison terms but that I believe is not where we start. That is not prison reform; it is sentencing reform.

Though I don’t know much about other states I do know a little about the state of incarceration here in Michigan. The problem here is that no matter how much reform is proposed lawmakers do not want to go easy on violent offenders. Let’s face it, most individuals do not receive a life sentence for being a nice guy or decent lady. The crimes we commit are terrible and have a ripple effect on many individuals within the community, not just the victims. With that said, I believe that focus should be more directed towards incarceration reform and post-conviction reform rather than pre-conviction sentencing reform. Let me explain.

Over the course of my incarceration, now coming up on two and a half decades, I have met many men that have received some very harsh sentences; life without parole, life with parole, 40-60 years, 25-50 years and so on. At the time of our convictions with very few exceptions, though many may disagree, we were given a sentence that fit our crimes and our history. Myself, I had previously served a 2-4 year sentence for a felonious assault and have an extensive juvenile history. There is no doubt I deserve to spend many years incarcerated for my behavior. The question then becomes, what happens when someone truly changes and is no longer the person they were at the time they were sentenced? Do they still belong in prison?

I have met many individuals that were very bad men on the street and continue to be bad men in prison, a reality that unfortunately will never change. I have also met many men here that have changed at their core and have become quite productive while in prison. Most of us have grown up and become mature adults. So what about those men? At what point do men like that get the chance to truly give back to the society they could not function in so many years before? I know firsthand they have a great many things to offer.

When the prison system refuses to acknowledge the changes in an individual, most always self-sought changes when it comes to the lifer, they do the community a grave injustice as a whole. Though Michigan doesn’t actually believe in rehabilitation for its lifers, we are excluded from many very good programs. Those of us that do want to change take it upon ourselves to enroll in “self-help” programs to change the behavior that landed us here in the first place. Why is that not recognized for what it is? Some use the phrase “You got yourself into it, so get yourself out of it.” That is exactly what many of us lifers have been trying to do but our efforts seem to always be in vain unless we are sick and dying.

Myself, I don’t necessarily believe in “rehabilitation” in the sense that many do. But I do believe in the ability for a man to “mature” while they are incarcerated. Maturity is, in a sense, rehabilitation in and of itself, having reached a directed state. After spending nearly 25 years in prison I have matured to the point where I simply don’t think like I did so long ago and therefore my behavior has changed as well, no longer will follow a dark path. I am simply too old for such foolishness.

That Mrs. Conley is the true civil rights catastrophe. States not recognizing the changes that actually take place right in front of them and are far more powerful than new legislation that focuses only on hollow reforms that do not work to curb crime. Why do the individuals seeking prison reform always focus on the pre-incarceration and never the actual incarceration or the post-incarceration? Shouldn’t we, as a population, focus on all three? History has shown us that doesn’t deter crime, neither does harsher punishment. If focus can also be directed at those who have shown they have changed, and show how they have changed, and can become a productive member of society, that I believe will see better footing within the legislature. Creating programs that use us to show others that change can take place even here is far more effective in redirecting the behavior of those who think crime still pays or those who think they simply have no other options. I believe that is what will produce fruitful results within the legislative body. Acknowledging the changes in incarcerated individuals and helping them to actually put those changes to work in ending generations of incarceration is a much better way to spend tax-payer dollars and may be a starting path to true prison reform.

Shouldn’t we at least attempt it? We can continue to fight for sentencing reform but sentencing has nothing to do with prison reform if you truly understand it. All sentencing reform does is change the way sentences are handed down. They do not affect an individual once they are sentenced to prison. True prison reform must come from within, the way prisons are governed, not in the sentence that sends men and women to prison. Through changed behavior many of us are different people that the public never gets to meet to judge for themselves.  Prison administrators, unfortunately, have no true desire to put that on display; the last thing they want to do is show the public that some of us in prison are perfectly capable of contributing effectively to society. It essentially is a branding against their own product. The only industry that has ever done that is the tobacco industry, and then only after they were forced to.

I am quite sure that many families, as well as some administrators, agree that true reform must start here with those of us that have shown we can change. Why keep some incarcerated after they have shown through their behavior while they are in prison that they have changed? Many even “age out” of crime. Why can’t there be legislation drafted that focuses on men and women like that to help them get out of prison.  Rewarding those that have changed and giving them incentive to help those struggling before they commit crimes is true reform. Start at the end with us to help change the beginning for others. That type of prison reform will not overburden society, not risk their safety, and I believe it has the greatest potential to have lasting change that will allow us to see true results where they matter most.