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Corrections sounds off
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 06/19/2006

After a USA Today editorial described the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons' report Confronting Confinement as a “scathing indictment of the nation's correctional system”, the American Correctional Association's Executive Director Jim Gondles felt the need to respond with an opinion piece of his own to defend the corrections industry.

“I don't want to say that we agree with the report. I want to say that the report agrees with us,” says Gondles, in an exclusive interview with Corrections.com. “We've been saying many of these things for a long time. The ACA and the corrections community have called for better health care, education and job skills training and treatment for the mentally ill for ages.”

The 126-page report and accompanying 30 recommendations were released on June 8th. Based on a year of research conducted by a bi-partisan committee, it highlighted many adjustments that should be made in corrections.

“They quote ACA standards many, many times in the report and we're very thankful for that,” Gondles says.

But there are a few issues corrections officials don't agree with.

“Where we split the most with this report is its demand for independent oversight,” he explains. “The ACA believes there is enough oversight already. We have the U.S. Department of Civil Rights Division, federal and state courts, and the American Civil Liberties Union, among a number of others. The public does have access to these facilities and I don't know how much more oversight we could have.”

He says another layer of oversight might do nothing more than create a bureaucratic mess. Gondles also has questions about the report's recommendation regarding inmate healthcare.

“I'm obviously not suggesting that we shouldn't medically treat inmates,” says Gondles. “But I want to put it in perspective. They are calling for increased healthcare for inmates when there are more than 40 million American citizens with no healthcare who haven't been adjudicated for breaking the law. Putting it in perspective, I think we need to look toward increased medical care for all Americans, incarcerated or otherwise. It's not an ‘either' ‘or' situation; it's a ‘both.'”

Despite differing views on these issues, there are many recommendations that the ACA fully backs. According to Gondles, the corrections system is currently managing about 450,000 inmates with mental illness problems. By turning prisons and jails into what Gondles calls “de facto mental hospitals and wards for the nation”, society is adding extra stress to a system that is already struggling with prison overcrowding.

They also agree on providing more inmate programs in an attempt to reduce offender idleness and lower recidivism rates.

Additionally, Gondles says that the focus on drug treatment was one of the most important pieces of the report.

“I feel heartened because we're seeing even conservative senators stepping up and saying that we need to offer drug offenders treatment rather than incarceration. If we can make a fundamental change like that, it will go a long way toward turning lives around and reducing incarceration rates, as well as saving taxpayer dollars. But more importantly, it's just the morally correct thing to do,” he says.

Confronting Confinement has certainly stirred a new debate over issues in corrections, and has opened a dialogue between state officials, corrections administrators and the American public. Gondles sees this as an opportunity for corrections to shine.

“I appreciate this interest in trying to improve our systems,” Gondles says. “It's important to say, however, that I think the overwhelming majority of men and women who work in our profession are honorable, honest, and hardworking. If we continue to give those professionals the tools they need, it will improve corrections, and society, as a whole.”



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