The role of incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people is already critical in decarceration and reforming the criminal justice system and yet barely acknowledged. This role can be an even greater force if the framework changes in how incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are viewed and defined. In prison, incarcerated people play a major role in supporting each other in their abilities to grow educationally, personally, and prepare to go home and build a new life. Formerly incarcerated people are playing leading roles in policy change, in imagining and designing solutions for a changed justice system, and in helping their peers who return home rebuild their lives.

Many of those who play a leading role inside prison and who reenter society as policy advocates and service providers are people who have been convicted of violent crimes, including murder. Yet each day as we hear new calls to reduce mass incarceration, policy leaders as well as many people active in prison reform movements call for changes that focus on those incarcerated for non-violent crimes and often are explicit about the need to leave those convicted of violent crimes in prison.

Such calls ignore the positive roles played by long-termers inside the prison and when they come home, the low recidivism rates of longtermers, the large percentage of people in prison for violent crimes, and the basic values of rehabilitation, redemption, transformation and justice.

The framework has to fundamentally change of how people are defined who have been convicted and served time. Instead of seeing individuals solely as bad people, who did bad things and have to “be rehabilitated,” and continually punished and feared after returning from prison, people have to be viewed as individuals with strengths, creativity, and possibility, and capable of changing their own lives and in creating opportunities for change amongst their peers and within the larger society. The narrative must include individual accountability and social responsibility with attention paid to the details of people’s lives. A new framework will view incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are a force for change challenging the very dehumanization and related racism that is a fundamental building block of the present system of mass incarceration.

About the author

Kathy Boudin

While incarcerated for 22 years, Kathy Boudin was a teacher and counselor and developed programs collaboratively with other women in areas including mother-child relationships across the separation of prison, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, basic literacy, higher education, and longtermers. Today, Kathy serves as Director of The Criminal Justice Initiative: Supporting Children, Families and Communities located at Columbia University School of Social Work and is an adjunct professor at both Columbia University School of Social Work and New York University School of Social Work focusing on issues related to incarceration and reentry.