It’s Past Time to Reevaluate Our Love Affair with Incarceration

Even though the coronavirus pandemic seems far from over, thoughtful people are already asking how it will change the lives of Americans in the years to come. Questions about the long-term economic, political, social and public health impacts prompt widely differing opinions and speculations. But what everyone seems to agree on is that it will change some things permanently—or at least until the next major crisis changes them again.

Let us hope that one long-lasting change addresses the policies, laws and attitudes within our society that has caused us to be labeled “The Incarceration Nation.” We need to reevaluate the who, the why and the for-how-long we incarcerate our fellow citizens and consider the lifetime collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

A recent article in The Guardian had this arresting headline: “US jails will become death traps in the coronavirus pandemic.” News headlines sometimes wildly overstate what is often a more nuanced article. But there’s reason to believe this one is not an exaggeration. Our prisons by design lack transparency as well as medical resources. One can only imagine the explosion in cases around the country among contained populations with the inability to practice physical distancing.

The writers, Jean Casella and Katie Rose Quandt, work with Solitary Watch, a national watchdog group that documents conditions in US prisons and jails. The thrust of their argument is that the 3,100 city and county jails across America are, effectively, “petri dishes” that provide the optimal environment for the spread of a communicable disease like the coronavirus.

Unlike state and federal prisons, local jails see a massive inflow and outflow of our fellow citizens each month. Casella and Quandt cite a figure of 10 million jail admissions every year in America. Think of incarcerating every man, woman and child in a state as populous as New Jersey every year. Though many are not incarcerated for more than a month, 615,000 of those who are incarcerated on any given day—about 2.2 million people in total—are in a county or city jail.

The vast majority are “non-violent” criminals, but that label has many definitions and applications. A better term would be “low risk.” A white-collar person that steals the life savings of an elderly person on the day of release is technically “non-violent,” while the person of color who had one perhaps violent transgression decades earlier in the inner-city might not get that same consideration when it comes to qualifying for bail.

Around the country, we are experiencing a movement away from the status quo of granting bail for people who would benefit from addressing their criminogenic factors in the community by substance abuse treatment, clinical counseling and vocational training. Technical violations of parole supervision are better addressed with modified treatment related to conditions rather than a return to the systems that have only proven to foster criminality and expand criminal networks.

Advocates for criminal justice and sentencing reform have been pointing out these realities for many years and it is only fairly recently that governments have realized that resources allocated to incapacitation are not making societies safer and could be better spent on treatment modalities. But reform is a hard “sell” with those who are elected or appointed to represent society’s interests and public safety. Let’s face it, a “tough on crime platform” resonates with some of the electorate. And let us not mention the soft money provided legally behind the scenes from the prison industrial complex lobbies.

Today, however, the increasingly threatening reality of Covid-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is finally forcing change. The danger posed by Covid-19 to the health of individuals behind bars is more than obvious. This is true as well for those employed by the jails. Casella and Quandt say that Los Angeles has already released about ten percent of those incarcerated in its jails. Officials in many other cities and counties are following suit. In addition, fewer people who would have been incarcerated in normal times are being sent to jail.

On Sunday March 29, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections announced the first case of Covid-19 in the state prison system, an inmate at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County. It is inevitable that more will follow. Here in Pike County the County Commissioners have just reported the first Covid-19 case in Pike County Correctional Facility (PCCF), an employee. Inmates who were in contact with the employee are now under quarantine. Other staff members who worked alongside the infected employee are self-isolating at home.

We understand that a process has begun here in Pike County to assess which inmates at PCCF could be released for Covid-19 related health reasons. While the District Attorney and probation officials will likely have the strongest voices in the determinations to be made, the Public Defender’s office as well as local defense counsel should also be heard in determining if someone is at risk to re-offend. Stringent conditions of bond may better accomplish justice related goals, leading to a win/win scenario. Let’s hope this process is also occurring at the front end of the system and the fundamental decision for remanding someone is solely based on flight risk or threat to the community.

If we are willing to have it, Covid-19 should push us to begin a serious conversation about the who, the why and the for-how-long we incarcerate our fellow citizens. If this public health emergency forces us to release some portion of those currently in jail, can we fairly ask why we incarcerated them in the first place? Out of crisis, comes opportunity, and Covid-19 might do more for the cause of criminal justice reform that advocates have been pressing for over the past decade.

Writen and Prepared by: Jack Donson and Hampton Morgan

Mr. Donson and Mr. Morgan are members of the Board of Directors of Choosing Integrity

The Marijuana Debate

An astonishing number — at least to me — of men and women we encounter in our work are long time, heavy users of marijuana. Some are in jail because of it, which prompts bitter complaints about Pennsylvania’s drug laws. I have heard more than one person say that, upon release, they intend to move to a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.

“Pot helps me relax” is the most common compliment of the drug’s beneficial effects I hear. More than one person has praised marijuana as a kind of substitute for heroin, helping them not return to that powerfully addictive substance…at least for a while. I have yet to hear anyone suggest marijuana has a single negative side-effect.

From the reading I have done, I’m of the opinion that medical research on marijuana has not yet produced conclusive and persuasive evidence that pot is harmful enough that it should be considered a public health menace as serious, say, as cigarettes. Yes, it does negatively affect brain development in adolescents. Yes, there does seem, at least for some users, to be a connection to violence. Yes, in some people, there are interesting potential links between long time marijuana use and the onset of schizophrenia. Yes, for some it could be a gateway drug to more addictive substances.

From time to time I have attempted to offer these research insights as a counter to arguments that pot is a really beneficial drug and ought, therefore, to be legal. The problem, of course, is in the word “some.” Not all pot users become violence or develop schizophrenia or go on to use hard drugs.

No one, of course, believes they are ever likely to be numbered among the “some.”

So marijuana use is not the same thing as a fully loaded revolver that is guaranteed to kill you if you point it at your head and pull the trigger. It’s a revolver with, at most, just one bullet in it. For “some” it probably has no bullets in it.

I’d like to see marijuana decriminalized but not made legal. That’s probably a distinction without a difference. But something tells me need a lot more clarity and certainty before Pennsylvania makes marijuana legal.

Hampton Morgan

A Terrifying Enemy

In an earlier post, I mentioned a new book I had just become aware of — “Dopesick.” Embedded in that blog post is a video in which PBS NewsHour host, Judy Woodruff, interviewed the author, Beth Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times. I have only recently found time to begin reading the book.

“Dopesick” explores the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic from the extreme southwestern corner of Virginia all the way to the western suburbs of Washington D.C. It is a distance covering hundreds of miles traversed by I-81.

Macy introduces readers to the heartbreaking stories of alarmed physicians and community leaders, anguished mothers and fathers, and naive law enforcement officials who became first-hand witnesses of the carnage wrought by opioid addiction. From communities along the borders of West Virginia and Kentucky, reeling from the job losses caused by shuttered factories and closed coal mines, to the solidly middle class suburbs of Roanoke, Macy chronicles the tsunamis of opioid prescriptions inundating communities where no one had any idea just how addicting these drugs were. Until it was too late.

Purdue Pharma, everyone’s opioid epidemic whipping boy, fares badly in Macy’s story. And not without cause. Purdue cared far too much about its profits to exercise the care and responsibility it should have when its role in the epidemic of opioid addiction was plain for everyone to see. Plain, that is, for everyone except Purdue’s executives and lawyers.

Victims are everywhere in “Dopesick.” Macy introduces us to the lives of high- schoolers cut short by overdose death as well as their stunned and grieving parents, some of whom deserve medals for their courageous and effective campaign to hold Purdue Pharma accountable.

Macy also introduces us to the dealers who, sensing an expanding market, infiltrated some of the same communities — where opioid pills had already laid the groundwork for widespread addiction — to sell heroin to the addicted who no longer had access to the pills and discovered that heroin was a lot cheaper.

As I began Beth Macy’s book, I was not a newcomer to the existence or contours of the opioid epidemic. I know men and women whose lives have been ravaged by opioid addiction. I know men and women who are serving state prison sentences for selling heroin. I knew three men who died of heroin overdoses in the past 18 months. And I know a grieving mother and father of one of those men.

But upon reaching the halfway point in “Dopesick,” I felt something I had not experienced before. Maybe it was partly the result of looking at the body of a 26-year old man, with all the promise of life before him, but now dead from an overdose, laying in a casket during the family visitation hour at the funeral home a week ago. I felt terrified. Terrified of the awesome power of heroin to enslave and to destroy.

A few years ago, a man from the county just south of us shot two state police officers one night as they were coming off their shift. One of them died. The assassin fled into the depths of the Delaware State Forest, where he outwitted a massive manhunt for about three weeks. Finally he was apprehended and held in the county jail where we do some of our work. At trial, well more than a year later, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The law enforcement and justice system spared no expense in capturing this man and convicting him for his crime. As they should have.

We surely would have seen an even more massive effort to find and stop this man if he had gone on a more widespread shooting spree, coming out of the forest every night to take another life, and then retreating back into the shadows to await his next opportunity. What if he killed two or three dozen other citizens in our county? We would be terrified, staying inside and away from windows lest we become his next victim. And we would want him captured. Yesterday!

Perhaps this is an inaccurate or inept comparison, but this is how I am beginning to see the terrifying power of heroin and the victims it has claimed in the past year within 20 miles of where I live. I often feel we are still sleep-walking in the midst of a mortal danger that stalks victims from every community, every church and every socio-economic level of society.

Yes, I felt terrified today.

Not finished yet with the book, I don’t know if Ms. Macy will give me reason to shake off the terror I feel. My gut tells me the terror is justified and that we are a very long way from being able to breathe more easily.

Hampton Morgan




Incarceration in America

Have you ever heard the term “decarceration?” My guess is probably not, at least unless you are a prison reform advocate or a family member who has experienced the American “justice” system. But I bet you have heard the term “incarceration” for sure! While I’m personally not a fan of the term decarceration, I am a firm believer in the underlying reasons this term has been coined.

The United States has a reputation throughout the world as the “Incarceration Nation.” We have approximately 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We are also one of the few countries that sentences juveniles to life in prison. (There has recently been some case law overturning that practice.)

While the American psyche has grown accustomed to the overuse of prisons, there has also been a bit of a wake-up call for families experiencing the justice system as it has ensnared more and more of their family and friends. I recently read Harvey Silverglate’s provocative book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. It is an eye opener about how many things in this country are illegal – so many, in fact, that no one really has any idea how many laws there are a person could be prosecuted for without even knowing they have broken the law. (Silverglate’s title implies that the average American could commit three felonies every day without even knowing it.)

(If you want to see an excellent chart of the state of incarceration in America today, visit this website.)

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some extremist advocating for the abolition of prisons. But I am screaming from the mountaintop about how our country has missed the mark on punishment and incapacitation. The origins of the prison population explosion have their root in the politically advantageous “truth in sentencing laws” of the 1980s, when most jurisdictions throughout the country abolished parole systems and mandated people serve approximately 85 percent of their prison term regardless of conduct, rehabilitation, or anything else. It is also suspicious that his happened at about the same time for-profit private prisons began to be used. Hmm.

While incarceration rates have started to decline, the infrastructure is still in place, mainly the prison industrial complex and their lobbies who argue for the status quo while they contribute tens of millions of dollars in their lobbying efforts. Not to mention, it’s still a great sound bite for a politician to opine about their tough-on-crime platform.

While incapacitation has been overused, the emphasis on correctional treatment has been reduced and academic research has concluded crime rates have not significantly decreased in light of the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on a yearly basis. What is even more disturbing is how the private corrections industry has expanded into all kinds of peripheral services such as telephone, video visitation and transportation – for which inmates and their families pay handsomely. Even local governments rely on these sources of revenue, along with federal government contracts to house immigration prisoners.

It is hard to say if the corner we have turned will continue to trend further but there are a lot of forces behind the scenes fighting to maintain the status quo. Most people will eventually be released from prison. So to truly make communities safer there must be a greater emphasis on treatment as well as developing more alternative diversionary programs such as residential (halfway in/halfway out) centers and day reporting centers, which include both training and treatment. There are dire lifetime collateral consequences for a conviction and these programs can work in conjunction with drug, mental health and veteran’s courts to avoid the stigma prior to the vicious cycle of arrest, release and repeat!

If you’d rather see some of these same points made in a compelling video, here it is:

Jack Donson




I’m stepping outside my comfort zone with the content of this blog post as I never write about local issues or personal experiences.

While I completely understand the general concept that “life is about choices,” I think this notion is often misunderstood and is used in a context lacking empathy and understanding. It reminds me of the mentality in this statement: “You get what you deserve.”

If you’ve never walked in someone’s shoes (that’s what empathy is) it’s wise to refrain from judgments and even wiser to realize that life is about growth and life is about healing — and not necessarily in that order.

Over my career I worked with thousands of inner-city, marginalized populations incarcerated in the federal prison system. Not a single individual I worked with chose to have cognitive deficiencies caused by being born of a crack-addicted mother or having to live in the poverty and violence of a New York City housing project.

I once knew a young man. Let’s call him John, who was raised in a stable, suburban family that emphasized values such as faith, honesty and integrity. John had all the needed emotional support; yet he was arrested at age 16, prosecuted in juvenile court and declared a “delinquent.” Fortunately, the local court had the resources and John was allowed to participate in a diversionary program in which he avoided a conviction and juvenile placement. The experience was a wake- up call and he went on to make better choices. He often tells people there was a fine line in his life where he could have had a life in and out of state prison rather than a career working in the Federal prison system.

To be honest, I’m John! My point is that if someone with family and court support could find themselves on that edge, I can’t even imagine how the truly traumatized cope in today’s world, given the deterioration of the family, domestic abuse, bullying and the rampant promotion of crystal meth, heroin and Fentanyl.

Rather than judge behavior and cheer for punishment, we need a better balance of treatment by identifying the underlying factors that led to the involvement with the justice system. We can then provide evidenced-based programs that are helpful for many in turning things around.

Rural communities like Pike County have been profoundly impacted by the drug epidemic, lack of employment opportunities but more importantly the lack of meaningful mentorship and diversionary programs and resources for our young adults. I am confident Choosing Integrity can be a positive force in our community to help young adults choose healing, growth and recovery so they can become productive members of their family and community.

Jack Donson




Recovery is More Likely Than We Think

I worked in the business office at New Hope Manor for several years. Nick Roes, who at the time was the executive director of this women’s residential substance abuse recovery center in Sullivan County NY, told me something about addiction and recovery I have never forgotten.

Nick said that the majority of people who become addicted to alcohol or drugs do eventually recover. He said something else that stuck with me: rehab can play a helpful part for some people, but that most recover without formal rehab.

When I asked him about how this can be (after all, wasn’t it his job to promote rehab?) he replied that people eventually figure out what they have to do to stay clean. In other words it is for most a process of trial and error. What works for one person might not work so well for another person. People who find the motivation to overcome their addictions discover what works for them and they learn to stick with it.

The conversation with Nick came back to mind a few days ago when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times a friend in North Carolina sent me. “Addiction Doesn’t Always Last a Lifetime” is the title. The writer, Maia Szalavitz, is probably most famous for her book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. But she has also written about addiction, especially in another of her books, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.

In her Times opinion piece, Szalavitz offers stories of six recovering addicts, each who pursued a different path to recovery. Some included stints in rehab, but others found the path forward through meaningful work, relationships, spirituality and medication assisted treatment.

The stories were all encouraging. Szalavitz’s piece can be found here.

Hampton Morgan





Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has played a leading role introducing a new generation of Americans to the concept of grit.

As in “True Grit.”

You are likely familiar with the movies by that title, the older one starring John Wayne and the more recent remake — a memorable effort with predictable weirdness by the Coen Brothers — starring Jeff Bridges. The novel on which both were based was written by Charles Portis in 1968.

The story is ostensibly about the dogged determination of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a US marshal hired by 14-year old Mattie Ross to find Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. She learned of Cogburn’s reputation from the local sheriff as the “meanest” of the marshals, “a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Later, young Mattie approaches Cogburn saying, “They tell me you are a man with true grit.”

Before the story ends we discover that Cogburn has less grit than his young employer, who shows twice the determination and perseverance in ultimately seeing that her father is avenged and justice is served.

I use this story in the lesson, “Hope and Perseverance,” which is part of the integrity material I use with inmates. I also use Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale,” an assessment tool she developed to help people quantify their “grittiness.”

Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” She considers it the single most important trait, (perhaps it is more accurate to say it’s first among equals), in the ability to succeed in life. She rates it as more important than intellect, physical strength or innate talent.

Below, features a TEDTalks video where Angela explains “Grit.”

After taking my students through Duckworth’s “Grit Scale” and asking them if they are surprised at their score, I move on to a specific question: “When were you at your grittiest?” In other words, can you remember a time when you saw a task through to completion, overcoming whatever serious obstacles stood in the way?

In a recent class, we started around the table with each participant having a chance to offer his answer. When we came to an inmate I’ll call Mickey, without a moment’s hesitation he said, “I was at my grittiest when I was dope sick and needed to find my next bag of heroin.”

I looked at him without speaking, but signaling with my facial expression that he was welcome to add any clarifying explanation he wished to. He said very simply that when a man needs his next fix he’ll do just about anything to get it.

Such is the power of an addiction.

I nodded and moved on to the next participant. He looked at Mickey and said, “He spoke for me too.” I asked if he really meant it and he said yes. Before I could ask the next man about his grittiest time, he offered that he, too, had to agree with Mickey’s answer.

Though I would have loved to hear a more noble tribute to the virtue of perseverance, I knew this was reality for someone with a long history of opioid addiction. Addictions of any kind, substance or behavioral, can be all consuming at least some of the time. And indeed, grit is probably not the wrong word to describe the effort and determination one will employ to satisfy the craving, even if it falls short of being “dope sick.”

Other participants, to be sure, did offer examples of grittiness that enabled a more positive outcome and resulted in what any of us would celebrate as success. Mickey later noted that he had experienced positive results from gritty determination, but not after the age of 16 when his substance abuse first started.

Before the session ended I specifically addressed Mickey, who was trying to arrange for in-patient treatment for his addiction and was ultimately successful in having the court factor that into his sentence. I said something like this: If it took grit to find your next bag when you were dope sick, remember that it will take grit to make the most of your time in treatment and living in recovery. 

Down the road, when you have gained strength and learned better how to stay clean, and you begin to set better goals for your life, remember how important grit is in doing what you have to do to get where you want to go.

He said he would call me at his first opportunity after getting out. I have heard that before and no phone call ever came. I hope, of course, this one is different and that I can report good news in a future post.

How gritty are you? If you’d like to try out Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale,” you can find it here.

Hampton Morgan