I grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas,
a very conservative community. Originally
a pioneer trading center, it was founded in 1842 as the first incorporated city
in Kansas.

A story I remember from childhood,
perhaps apocryphal, is that the state legislature gave the town a choice:
As the oldest community in the state,
it could have either a federal prison
or a state university. The town fathers chose the prison, fearing that the university students might be riotous and running across their lawns. Or perhaps they just had more confidence in the federal government
than in the state.

Eventually, Leavenworth and its nearby surroundings hosted myriad penal facilities including the city and county jails,
a Federal Detention Center,
and the military's maximum security prison, the Fort Leavenworth United States Disciplinary Barracks, opened in 1875.
The very large Kansas State Penitentiary and a state medium security prison are also located nearby. For many years a federal
Old Soldiers' Home in nearby Lansing, Kansas, provided additional support to the local economy.

As railroads first expanded across
the nation, Leavenworth, situated
on the bluffs of the Missouri River
and long the major mid-country stop-over
on the cross-country Pony Express route, naturally expected to become a major rail center. Whether through arrogance, delay,
or unreasonable terms and demands, Leavenworth lost its bid for the railroad.

The St. Joseph Railroad chose the much smaller town of Westport Landing and in 1869 built the Hannibal Bridge there over
the Missouri River. The rest, as they say,
is history. Westport far outgrew Leavenworth, eventually becoming the metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.

Leavenworth, however, gained a stable recession-proof economy based on reliable government jobs - including many at Fort Leavenworth - a situation which exists
to this day. Security may have created
a certain conservative lack
of adventurousness and free-spirited culture in the city and among the "city fathers",
or perhaps this was my misperception
as a restless teenager growing up. I do remember that there was an attempt to have "Community Concerts," but this cultural endeavor quickly withered. Similarly,
a wonderful "Pioneer Days" project - a week of parades and festivities for locals
and tourists - lasted for only a very few years.

The prison, however, offered opportunities. My father, a sociologist, taught classes
for the convicts for ten years, and greatly enjoyed the experience. This sparked
my interest in recidivism - the tendency
for offenders to serve sentences only
to return again and again to a life of crime. My college senior thesis was on this topic, and researching, I had the opportunity
to tour the Federal prison, which rarely admits visitors.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. In 2008 approximately one in every 31 adults (7.3 million) in the United States was behind bars, or being monitored (probation
and parole). An additional 86,927 juveniles were incarcerated.

Why can't we "turn people around" and away from a life of crime? I made two personal attempts.

Through the Big Brother program, I worked
for several years with Fred Christian (not his real name) a juvenile fender on probation. We met every week or so and I took Fred to many cultural and social events.

He seemed appreciative, more assured,
and better adapted to social situations. Eventually I lost track of him, so I do not know how he adjusted subsequently.

Through the Arlington County Offender Aid
and Restoration
program I visited Willy Montain (not his real name) weekly
in the County Jail for quite a while. We had what hopefully were helpful discussions,
but again, I don't know what he is up to now.

All this leads to my main point: How is it, with all the sophisticated psychological, sociological, pedagogical and visual-learning information and skills we have, that we cannot reform or redirect first-offenders,
or many-time-offenders, into law-abiding citizens?

I know that there are various religious groups and other organizations which attempt to serve and reform convicts, but these, however well-intentioned, and for the great good they undoubtedly do, seem like adjunct services rather than the main-core purpose, goal and activity which seems to me should be the essential goal of incarceration. Not just punishment, but more importantly, retooling, re-goaling, re-orienting those who have made criminal missteps, but who, should be redeemable.

With 24-hours a day for a sentence of two, five or twenty years, cannot we change
a person - permanently - for the better?

Perhaps I am naive in all this but can't government, industry, educational institutions, churches and educational-psychological-psychiatric-sociological experts come together in a team effort
to address and solve this problem?

America is a dismal failure with incarceration. Can't we become a pioneer success in rebuilding lives and recreating citizens?

I hope so. It wouod be nice to see some of those prison doors swing open.


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