Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holding the Prison System Accountable

I recently went to my P.O. Box, something I do rather infrequently, I confess. Waiting for me was a letter from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) informing me that Laura Hall has been denied parole. On one level, I felt relief. I wrote about Laura in A Descent Into Hell. She helped Colton Pitonyak dismember the body of a young woman named Jennifer Cave and then took him on a joyride to Mexico to escape apprehension, telling a friend, "That's just how I roll."

Why was I relieved? Because of Laura's own words. She's been incarcerated since 2007, and she still refuses to accept responsibility for her actions. She played an obvious role in this horrific murder. There's evidence she was in that apartment with Pitonyak during the time Jennifer's body was mutilated and she bragged to others that she participated. She told one woman, "How many people can tell their grandchildren that they helped cut up a body?" Her tone indicated she thought it was something to be proud of. She's never voiced any remorse for Jennifer's death, calling her a "bitch" and a "whore." It's as if she fails to even acknowledge that a human being died in that apartment, one that was loved by her family and friends.

Then there are Laura's own words, played for the jurors at her recent re-sentencing, when she threatened so many people with violence, from the victim's mother to the judge and jury. She threatened her own mother, saying something akin to, "I should just kill you." On the tapes, she even said she planned to commit suicide behind bars and take others with her.

Why did I also feel a great sense of sadness reading that this vindictive and violent young woman will be locked up for at least another year? Two reasons, the first is that Laura is a young woman with a lot of potential. Even with her world crumbling around her, she earned a degree from the University of Texas. At one time, she wanted to go to law school. Gradually, over the past years, she's become an unstable and frightening human being.

The second reason: The notation on the TDCJ letter says that Laura will again be eligible for parole in December of this year.

The truth is that Laura Hall is going to get out some day. Her sentence was ten years. TDCJ can only keep her for so long, and then she'll be released, set free. And the frightening thing is little if anything anyone can describe as rehabilitation has been going on with Laura during her stay in prison. Instead, from reports I've received from behind bars, the experience is making this very troubled young woman ever more unstable.

When we talk of any prison, no matter where in the world, there's the age old argument over whether the goal is to rehabilitate or to punish. I've always believed that in a perfect system it's a balance of the two. Yes, it's important to punish inmates, to make them understand that their actions have consequences. Prison shouldn't be a health spa without fees. And it's not. I've been in prisons and jails in different parts of the nation, and I assure you that none of them are country clubs. They're places filled with pain and desperation

Beyond punishment lies rehabilitation. In truth, this is as or more important. If we don't find ways to turn around inmates like Laura Hall, ones who will one day be freed, we're risking the safety of future victims. Sure, it costs money. But beyond the suffering of future victims, talking just dollars and cents, it's going to cost way more to have to retry and rehouse inmates we've failed to turn around before they walk out prison gates. How do we know the prison system isn't rehabilitating? Look at the recidivism rate. In a Bureau of Justice study done in 15 states, 67 percent of released prisoners were rearrested within three years. During that same time period, 51 percent returned to prison.

The bottom line is that our prisons are clearly not preparing inmates to function in the outside world.


Jess said...

Very interesting post, Kathryn. Puts fear in me. Our governor here in Louisiana is interested in selling some of our prisons, making them privately owned. I'm totally against this because of where it might lead. Sure it COULD work but I don't know that it WOULD work considering politics in our state and basic human nature ...
I'm not educated in the # of privately owned prisons in our country--are there any? Are they successful in rehabilitating? Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Kathryn Casey said...

Hi Jess. There are quite a few privately owned prisons in Texas. I don't know what the recidivism rate is at the private vs the public prisons. Good question.

Mary O'Grady said...

I live in Austin. Laura Hall's family lives in this area; she was living with them while out on bail. I am not at all sorry that she is in prison. From what I have read about her action and attitudes I think she is a sociopath and a menace. She may be photogenic, but the rest of us are still entitled to protection from her.

Kathryn Casey said...

I agree, Mary, but Laura is going to get out. She really needs help while in prison to turn her around, if at all possible.