AMERICA’S PRISON DELUSION –Why Prison Doesn’t Offer Restoration for Citizens Who Need it Most


"The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.”-Bruce Feirstein.

This quote, in my simple mind, seems to reason that insanity measured alone, results in failure every time. Trust me, as someone who’s had his head smashed into the hood of a car by over zealous undercover cops, I know this to be true. I have also learned first-hand that Feirstein’s assessment of insanity applies to prisons in America. Where is the success?

America’s prisons are set up to punish offenders by degrading, humiliating, and emasculating the inmates they confine and control. This kind of dehumanization takes place only by exposing inmates to conditions that violate their basic human rights and strip them of their self-esteem.

For example, something as clear-cut as placing two or three men in a cell designed for one person can violate an inmate’s human rights and be categorized as cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine for a moment, you are locked in your cell lying on your bunk—which is strategically positioned next to the commode—when suddenly, Tiny jumps down from the top bunk and pops a squat on the toilet bowl next to your head. And yet, that’s the least of your problems in prison!

In prison, human rights violations include poor living conditions, extended periods of isolation, violent assaults by inmates, torture by guards, sexual assaults and rape by other inmates and even guards. Most people would be shocked to learn that when you add the prison population to the statistics of sexual assault, more men are sexually assaulted in America than women!

Adding to prison’s problems are illiteracy and poor social and emotional health. Seventy-five percent of inmates are high school drop-outs, and many are illiterate. While education must be a crucial component in the battle against poverty and crime, it is not, however, the be-all, end-all solution so many believe it is.

Even if we educated and equipped every inmate with a college degree but failed to engage the critical condition of their social and emotional health, I believe there would still be very little change in the rates of criminal behavior and recidivism in America. We would simply have inmates who hold college degrees, but still struggle with the never-ending consequences of poor social and emotional health.

After I left prison in 1986, serving three years of a seven-year bid for extortion, I began restoring homes and have earned a living at it ever since. Restoring a home is a bit more complicated than building a new one because I can’t build anything new until I have removed all the rot and decay from the existing structure. It would make no sense to install new materials over materials that have been rotting and decaying for years because the new installations would become corrupted by the old materials.

When it comes to restoring a life, it’s no different. An inmate’s life is often times filled with the rot and decay of social and emotional injury that, like a house, accumulate over many years. Completing a drug program, acquiring a G.E.D., or learning a trade skill in prison could lead to lasting change, but if they’re added without addressing social and emotional injuries, it’s like building on a rotting foundation.

As I wrote in my memoir How’s It Feel, Tough Guy?, my victim status as a child was directly related to my offender status as an adult. Until I removed the rot and decay of my own life, I wouldn’t be able to build something new and strong. Time would prove that neither an education nor a desire to live my life responsibly could overcome the unaddressed, unhealthy, social and emotional inadequacies that led to my confinement in the first place. To genuinely restore lives within America’s prisons, we must adopt an approach to reform that ends the dehumanization of inmates and embraces the challenges of meeting the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of inmates whose victim status more often than not led to their offender status.  Anything less amounts to painting over a crumbling foundation and hoping for the best.

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Mike and Heidi Palombi

Mike Palombi is the author of the book, “How’s It Feel, Tough Guy?”. It is a story about crime, addiction, salvation, restoration, and redemption. The book is currently in over one hundred prisons and county jails nationwide. Together with his wife Heidi, they use the book as a vehicle to bring a message of hope to those most others deem to be hopeless. Mike regularly speaks at men’s groups, churches, recovery events, drug treatment facilities and jails.

Book Mike now to speak at your venue. Purchase the book for yourself or to donate it to prisons in the United States.