Editor’s note: The following was sent by an inmate at Wateree River Correctional Institution in Rembert. Charles Zachary Sharpe was convicted in 2007 of arson in a fire that burned the historic Westminster train depot in the Upstate. Originally granted leniency by a judge and sentenced to 90 days in county jail, he soon violated the terms of his probation and was subsequently sentenced to 90 months in prison. He is scheduled to be released next March.
In God we trust. Sounds good don’t it? Have you ever wondered what it would be like if our laws were built around the Bible instead of the Constitution? Our country was established on the foundation of religious freedom by Christians. Ask anyone and they will probably tell you that America was founded on Christian values. That is what’s taught in school and in most churches and it’s even printed on our money, so few people ever question it.
In reality, our society does not hold true to Christian values at all.
I have lived with one slice of this issue for six years, and will continue to for the rest of my life. The part of the American system that I can speak on with authority is the prison system. We have a judicial system with no capacity for forgiveness. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
When you were a kid, did you ever do something you weren’t supposed to? What happened after you broke the rules? You mowed the lawn every Saturday for a month, you paid for the neighbor’s broken window out of your allowance, you were confined to your bedroom without telephone or TV, you stood in the corner, you got a spanking.
Whatever the punishment was, you did the action, you suffered the consequence, and it was over.
Most people think that is exactly how our judicial system works. You do the crime, you do the time, and you go back to business as usual. This could not be further from the truth.
In the real world, if you are ever convicted of a felony, there is no end to the punishment. You cannot pay your debt to society. You cannot do your time and then go on with your life. If you are one of the few who become rehabilitated, you will not be forgiven. A scarlet letter is placed upon your chest, and you are cast out from society.
For years now, I have complained on deaf ears about this system that does not work. It was only recently that I came to realize that the system is not broken; in fact, it’s working perfectly. The part I had confused all along was the purpose. I thought the prison system was designed to punish and reform criminals and to reduce crime. Boy was I wrong.
It turns out that imprisoning people is an industry in America. Prisons bring money into small, mostly rural communities. They provide an economic base in poor areas that are willing to accept them. So you see our system of incarcerating people is not broken at all. The modern American penal system is doing exactly what it’s designed to do: lock people up.
Even the most liberal of you reading this are probably starting to think something along the lines of, “This is just an angry prisoner ranting about the system which is forcing him to pay the consequence of his criminal actions.” And, to some degree, you are right, but it is not myself for whom I am advocating. It is the 30 percent of inmates who will return to jail within three years of release. It is the silent, undereducated, largely unskilled masses who have no family support that need you to take a moment and think about America’s dirty little secret. A lot of ex-cons want to follow the rules and lead productive lives, but in many cases they turn to the corrupt ways they learned in prison out of necessity. This is the reality of the judicial system. You don’t just do the crime and then do your time. You are marked for life. Society washes its hands of you. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. All the systems are in place to provide a prison system that helps criminals to change for the better. They just need to be used properly.
The South Carolina Department of Corrections has a classification system with the potential to help inmates individually, not just group them into lots by a few basic criteria. They have an entire school system with the potential to provide inmates with the education they need to survive in and contribute to society if they worried half as much about education as they do funding.
They have drug and alcohol treatment programs that could rehabilitate addicts if they were administered properly. They have labor programs that allow inmates to gain a good work ethic, and have the potential to alleviate their burden to the taxpayer by supporting themselves, but they are not implemented effectively, and very few inmates meet the state classification guidelines because of the broad swath style of categorizing, and grouping classifications.
Society needs to have a capacity for forgiveness. After all, isn’t that one of the main pillars of the religious basis of our society? The next time you pull a coin out of your pocket, remember “In God we trust.” After all, 6 percent of it is going to fund ineffective state programs.
The writer lives in Rembert.