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Three Ways A Prison Psychologist Would Change The System

Victoria Pickering
The Eastern States Penitentiary was designed more for reform than punishment. It closed in 1971.

There are 2.2 million people serving prison time in the U.S. – more than in any other country. Those who’ll be released this year will have about a month to prepare for re-entry – and that, according to Mary Looman, will mostly be lining up a ride home.

Looman is a psychologist for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The co-author of A Country Called Prison talked to Think host Krys Boyd about how the existing system of mass incarceration could put inmates on a better course.

Here are three things Looman says prisons could easily change:

1.       Separate offenders by age group.

Take those between 18 and 25 years old, Looman suggests, and help them get a GED or associate degree while they serve time. And Looman is an advocate for providing financial aid to some: prison education has been shown to reduce recidivism by 40 percent, according to this piece in The Nation.

“People with degrees don’t usually reoffend,” Looman says.

The 30- to 40-year-old crowd who’ve had jobs and started families need help finding work in their fields, so Looman says prisons should corral them in a separate program. Looman says this method would curb violence within prisons, as repeat offenders often target younger newcomers.

2.       Give prisoners looking at release some time online.

When inmates walk out into the world without a driver’s license or a job, they are likely to commit the same crimes, or more serious crimes. Imagine a person given three years for marijuana possession, Looman says.

“They just learn how to be angrier, they learn how to be a better criminal," she says.

So, as those lower-level offenders await reentry to society, it would be a good idea to set them up for a life, Looman says. She laments how little access to the internet prisoners are given before release.

“Why can’t we have job fairs?” Looman asks. “Online interviews, we could have people ready to go.”

3.       See the potential in people.  

Looman says that a sentence for crack cocaine possession is usually 15 years, while cocaine in powder form gets the holder three to five years. Assigning severity to different acts -- determining “how bad” someone might be -- is dangerous, she says.

“Once you begin to say that person is ‘bad,' you forget to see their good qualities," she says.

Listen to the full conversation with Mary Looman.

Listen to Think Monday through Thursday, at noon and 9 p.m., on KERA 90.1. or stream the show live.

Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.