Co-op prison?

A colleague sent me a very interesting news story today, about a new cooperative prison to be launched in New Hampshire. Secretly, I suspect it is an April Fools Joke of some sort (since there is no other sign of it anywhere and they also misspelled Meldrim Thomson’s name). But as wacky as it all sounds, there are some prison-related cooperatives and proposals floating around. If we are really interested in rehabilitating criminals, we ought to be taking this more seriously.

InsideArt is a cooperative of convicts and ex-cons who market their art through a virtual gallery in British Columbia. Through this co-op both groups make money. A portion of earnings for inmates goes to room and board helping them repay their debts to society while engaged in productive and therapeutic work. And of course, having legitimate income helps the transition out of prison.

On an even more grand scale, the New Birth Project would replace a prison in Virginia with a cooperatively-owned institution. Its stakeholders would include community members, employees, and yes, prisoners. It would apparently pay for itself in a decade, due to its double nature as a power plant.

Is this all pie in the sky? Can prisoners really be expected to manage themselves? Isn’t the whole point of prison to isolate people who are unable to manage themselves? Maybe, but don’t tell the inmates at Walpole prison in Massachussetts. In 1973, following the Attica riots, they were gradually given control of the daily operations of their maximum security prison. Jamie Bissonette wrote a whole book on this subject, which is surely a fascinating read.

No doubt there were problems with the Walpole experiement (in any case, it ended for some reason). But nevertheless, there is certainly room for improvement in our “correctional” system, and we should be looking at this sort of example.

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