Want to educate yourself? Visit a prison

December 22, 2004


Crazy as it seems, when we decorate for Christmas at our house we always talk about prison. It's part of our holiday tradition and something I cherish.

There are a dozen or more boxes we bring in from the garage. Some are packed with ornaments and lights. Others are crammed full of Christmas kitsch. There's the musical Santa in a rocking chair my mother gave me years ago. And toy soldiers and old Ninja turtle Christmas decorations from when the boys were little.

But there's always one box that is different from the rest. It's the one with the mailing label still on it that reads: Dwight Correctional Center.

Dwight is the maximum security women's prison about 75 miles south of Chicago. From the road, it looks like an old stone castle stuck in a cornfield. But on closer examination, you begin to see the razor wire across the top of the fencing, the metal doors and the reinforced glass.

It's hard to imagine that anything beautiful can come out of a place so forbidding and austere, and yet every Christmas I'm reminded that something can and does.

Inside the cardboard box with the Dwight mailing label is an exquisite handmade Christmas village, 14 little buildings made with white yarn woven through plastic webbing. Houses with porches. Churches with bell towers.

It was made by former Death Row inmate Guin Garcia, a convicted double-murderer whom I met in the spring of 1995.

She was scheduled for execution by lethal injection in January 1996.

She had dropped all her appeals, refusing, in her words, to ''beg'' for her life. But at the 11th hour, Gov. Jim Edgar stopped the clock and commuted her sentence to natural life behind bars.

We still talk every couple of weeks when she calls collect. And every so often I drive down to see her. Guin is 46 now. She is tall and thin and still striking.

The younger inmates call her ''Granny,'' partly because her dark hair is more and more mixed with gray. And partly because prisons are communities and older inmates, especially lifers like Guin, end up being surrogate parents for young, first offenders. Some of them, Guin notes, are the children of addicts who lack even basic skills like using silverware or taking care of their own personal hygiene.

And when it comes to inmates, there are more and more of them.

''If you count everyone under state prison jurisdiction, county lockups plus parolees,'' says Paula Wolff of the public policy group Metropolis 2020, ''you have 235,000 people -- enough to qualify as the second-largest city in the state.''

Second, consider this. In the next year, a record 42,000 of those inmates are getting out. And unless we do something to address the problem, more than half of that number will be back in jail within three years. That's because they come out, most of them, just as uneducated, untrained and unprepared as when they went in.

Why should we care?

Let's forget about the human cost for a moment and just talk money. Paula Wolff says, ''One out of every 20 dollars in the general revenue fund goes to the Department of Corrections.'' It's staggering. For just one juvenile, it costs $60,000 a year. For the women at Dwight, it's $32,000 a year. At a minimum, for men at Stateville, it's $22,000 a year.

Given the budget crisis facing the State of Illinois, given the budget crisis in all of our schools, we have an urgent reason to do a better job of repatriating felons. That means education, vocational training and drug rehabilitation.

The Blagojevich administration has just launched a massive statewide task force to find a way to stop newly released inmates from committing more crimes and start building new lives. This shouldn't be treated as pie in the sky, but as something absolutely essential to public safety and fiscal sanity.

And if you haven't made a New Year's resolution yet, here's a thought. Go visit a prison. If nothing else, just to know more about where your money goes.

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