Does Prison Reform People?

By Marshall Jones

I have been asked this question quite a few times over the 17 years I have been imprisoned, sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole. See, when people look at me, they find it hard to believe that I have a life sentence. For one, I don’t carry myself as some overly aggressive convict, wrecking everything that comes into view. I don’t look for fights, and in fact, I search for peaceful places amid the hostility of prison life. I’m gentle, jovial, and I search of common ground with everyone I share my space with, staff or inmate. Then, people look at my movements, that I read or write the majority of the day, grinding like my out date is tomorrow. I am lucky if I sleep 5 good hours, before I am woke again to tackle the plate I have made for myself. Yet again, I have had a slew of great accomplishments over my incarceration, and I still look for new ways to challenge myself, and reach the community inside and outside of prison with positive interactions. I spend two to three hours a day studying the Bible and I aim to live out my faith. I don’t look the part anymore, and most are surprised that I am still in prison. Too many have said I don’t belong in prison anymore, and to that, I totally agree.

So what changed a convicted murderer, ex-gang member, former drug seller and user, and former criminal? Was it the weight of the life sentence pressing against my shoulders until I relented and became a “good boy”? Was it the prison system itself, with its many rules and policies designed to conform my behavior? Was it the many horror stories seen, heard and spoken of that scared me straight? What changed me?

Most wouldn’t believe me when I say that prison is incapable of changing anyone. They would be quick to suggest that because I was in prison when I began to change my life, that prison was the catalyst to my change. Truth be told, it was nothing in prison that ultimately changed me. It was something outside of prison that changed me. My cousin Angelo McCaleb’s murder in 2008, five years after my arrest, was the event that began the process of change in my life. The personal struggle with seeking retribution followed by the God given self-evaluation into the monster I had become was what caused my change. From that point on, the prison system offered a series of programs; vocational education, skilled trade employment opportunities within the prison, panel discussions with teachers and college students about criminality and the road to change, and treatment programs, and Restorative Justice that assisted me on the road to change. To the untrained eye, one may suggest that prison changed me if the programs obviously worked, but they would still be incorrect. All of the programs prison offer, the free world offers something similar and definitely something better, yet people are still coming to prison in record numbers.

Prison was never designed to reform people. Prison was always designed to punish crime, with hopes that the amount of time a person spends away from free society will cause a redirection that will incite change. A building in incapable of changing anyone, and a system can only give a person programming for a person to build upon their skills. The “tough on crime” policies that has blanketed the criminal justice system since the 80s have all been reactionary policies with punishment in mind. The crime bill in the 90s was designed to target the so-called “super predators”, by increasing prison sentences for crimes across the board, especially drug offenses. In Wisconsin, the Truth-In-Sentencing law wasn’t designed to change criminals, but to punish criminals by giving them obscene sentences without parole. The new sentencing law was hoped to be a crime deterrent, by using the people sentenced as public examples for what would happen when someone was unfortunate enough to come through the sentence. Since then, Tommy Thompson has admitted that he was wrong about Truth-In-Sentencing’s effectiveness to stop crime, but sadly, the law hasn’t changed and Wisconsin’s prison system is way overcrowded. So much policy but so little change. Why? Because prison was never designed to change people.

A system’s intent for existing becomes the foundation, and the structures erected become fused with the foundation. Society doesn’t view prisons the same way they view rehabilitation facilities. They associate prison with punishment, and until the perspective about prison changes to that of rehabilitation, our society will continue to build new structures on the old foundation, only to find out that the initial purpose they had for the prison was exchanged for more of the same.

Reformation happens within, and usually can be spurred on by traumatic experiences but it happens when a person becomes face to face with who they have become and they finally stop answering to the lie they have accepted for most of their lives. From that point, they become receptive to new influence, more exposure to something outside of their comfort zone, and they challenge themselves to experience this coveted second chance. A person can change outside of prison, and can change before they do something to go to prison. When we as a people give prison incorrect credit as a “life changer”, we then justify sending people here by the tens of thousands, thinking the walls, bars, and fences have this innate ability to change a person’s life. We have fooled ourselves. What can captivity teach a person other than how to experience and normalize bondage? The programs, schooling, and treatments carry no real power until the person is receptive to its teachings, and becomes pliable to reformation.

Prison was never designed to reform people, because if it was, then the recidivism rates would be at less than one percent and prisons across the world would have to close. If rehab facilities were designed to change addicts and make them sober, then drug dealers would be out of business. Society as a whole gives institutions in government and government itself too much credit in its ability to change lives. If a person chronicles my behavior over the last 17 years, going from a menace to model prisoner, from gang member to Bible study teacher, from fighter to mediator, and from hopeless to published author of my first poetry book                 (A Raven’s Meal/RoseDog Books). Society would look at my success story(still incomplete), and praise the prison system for the great transformation I have made with my life, but the only credit prison has is housing my body when I made the choice to change my life for the better. Prison wasn’t the reason I changed nor has been the reason my change has been constant. I made the choice and continue to make the same choice everyday and prison has absolutely nothing to do with it. I rededicated my life to Christ 12 years ago, and my study of God’s word, and my developing relationship with God created a new standard within me that exposed me to the realm of change. My spirituality deals with freedom, and in freedom lies the power to choose success or failure, life or death, progress or failure. Prison has nothing to offer but services that we can use to continue the process of change, and over the years, these services have become more watered down and less-existent.

I have completed almost all the programs they recommended for me. The only ones I have left are the ones they tell me I have too much time to take. So I have developed my own “program”, of Bible studies/devotional writing, job, poetry writing, letter writing, memoir writing, tutoring and counseling brothers in here, studying a plethora of subjects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture being one of them, and building effective bridges with people in society. Prison didn’t facilitate this grind I now partake in on this next level, their programs aren’t changing my life daily. It is me, God, my amazing helpmeet and my beautiful support system that facilitates the most amazing desire to go to sleep at 12am and wake up at 5:50am, on fire to master my day. No system, nor prison, could ever give me the passion I have for life, or the deepest affinity I have for people. Prison didn’t make me renounce my gang affiliation, stop using drugs, drinking alcohol, fighting or practicing lawlessness. Prison was incapable of changing me. God was!

What do you think? Does prison reform people?



Marshall Jones #366231

Redgranite Correctional Inst.

P.O. Box 925

Redgranite, WI  54970

Read more by Marshall Jones:

A Raven’s Meal: Book of Poetry

Red Thread Poets