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The Issue

Jail reform

Zoe Watkins - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 12/31/22

According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, 94% of incarcerated people in Tennessee will be released in three years.

Lt. Chris Cook, programs director at the Bedford County Jail, asked a …

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The Issue

Jail reform

According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, 94% of incarcerated people in Tennessee will be released in three years.
Lt. Chris Cook, programs director at the Bedford County Jail, asked a valid question, “What kind of person are we releasing back into our community?”
I’ve been thinking about this topic since the Bedford County Jail implemented the MRT program (the Moral Reconation Program) last spring and as they are looking at possibly giving every inmate tablets with the hope of providing educational or other reconation programs.
Many opponents to this will say, “But they’re prisoners, right? They deserve to sit there and think about what they did.”
I don’t disagree. I do think a society that is indulgent on criminals and lax on rules is one rampant with crime. I believe if you break the law, there will be consequences, and I believe violent criminals need to be kept off our streets.
But I also believe in reform.
What good does it do to have a criminal sit and think about what he or she has done for 23 hours of the day for months or years?
Instead, what if we made prisons places of opportunity — places where people truly can change things around when they get back out because they know how?
I like how Sheriff Austin Swing said it once, “It’s our job here to try to get everybody on what we think is the right track to get back into society and become a contributor. That’s our hope...”
Providing programs in prisons like MRT or through tablets is — I believe — a start.
Plus, this tablets-for-inmates program won’t cost taxpayers money. It’s an in-house operation for the jail like the commissary.
To quote the overly quoted Sir Thomas More from his book Utopia, “If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”
I will not disregard human corruption. Some people are evil to the core and are beyond the efforts of our government’s help. At that point, only God can change them.
But some people need a hand to pull them out of addiction and to pull them out of the lifestyles they were born into. Lt. Cook cited that somewhere around 95% of inmates in Tennessee are in prison for drugs and addiction.
I’ve listened to interviews with prostitutes and drug addicts and the story is always the same: My mother was trying to get high when I was born. She showed me how to do drugs when I was a teen. I was molested by a foster parent or by my mother’s boyfriend. I did drugs as an escape, so I failed school and was eventually arrested. Now I can’t get a job....
The story goes on and repeats itself in one person’s life and in many.
But what if we started viewing prison not as a place holder but as an opportunity for reform? Essentially, they have the inmate for a certain amount of time, they might as well do something to make his or her stay worthwhile.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I’ve seen what a leg up in the world can do for somebody who’s willing to take it.
For example, some who have completed the MRT program at the Bedford County Jail were able to get jobs at Tyson while serving out their prison sentences.
Imagine that. Once their sentence ends, they have a stable paycheck and a bit of savings — a step up in the world so they can make their car payment or pay rent so their kids can have a place to come home to after school.
They’re not sucking from the government anymore; they’re contributors.
And if these new tablets prove to be useful, inmates will have the opportunity to complete their GED or even start vocational training while serving out their time. Imagine that.
Even if only a handful of people take that opportunity, at least there’s a handful of people no longer drug addicted and lost. And once they take it, their more stable future then determines the future of their children and their children’s children.  
Won’t that help make this a better Bedford?