National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

James Hamm
-- Photo by Patricia Lefevere
Ex-felon proposes ‘new way’ for prisons

Lawyer James Hamm thinks of the U.S. prison system as a sock turned inside out. He wants to turn it right side out.

American prisons are defective and dysfunctional, he said. They’re run on economies of scale that produce recidivism. The system is unable to handle large numbers of unmotivated offenders and lacks the “brains and resources” to control prison gangs and institutional violence. It operates on an “extremely limited” mission statement: Keep them in until they’ve done their time, then turn them loose, he said.

Hamm ought to know. At 26 he committed a drug-related homicide and spent nearly 18 years in an Arizona prison. “I decided to plead guilty and take responsibility. Everyone uses that phase, but no one knows what it means. I had to figure my way through it,” he told NCR.

“Figuring it out” for Hamm involved getting a degree in sociology while inside, as well as learning Jungian analytic psychology and studying the I Ching. Jung’s psychology and the ancient Chinese book of changes “dovetailed for me,” Hamm said. “My goal was to get out of prison. My goal was not to let prison embitter me.”

Hamm was also the beneficiary of the work of Ellis MacDougal, “the greatest director of the Arizona Department of Corrections,” Hamm said. During MacDougal’s tenure (1978-83), Hamm said he saw his prison go from a “murder and men’s club” to a place where riots, stabbings and shootings rarely occurred. MacDougal broke up cliques of inmates, guards and administrators, Hamm said. “He fired people.”

Hamm’s luck came next through Donna Leone, a justice of the peace who in 1983 founded a prisoners’ rights group, Middle Ground Prison Reform. The organization operates as a resource for people seeking information on prisons. Hamm became Leone’s source of knowledge on the inside.

Hamm admits they were a good team from the start: “She doesn’t take no for an answer, and I don’t give up.” In 1989 the couple married. It took another three years for Hamm to have his 25-years-to-life-sentence commuted. When he got out in 1992 at age 43, he spent his parole period in law school at Arizona State University.

Today he directs legal and program services for Middle Ground Prison Reform. He also works as a justice consultant for Clearwinds Consulting in Tempe, Ariz.

His “new way of doing prisons,” calls for a reinvention of rehabilitation, which he compares to a virus that can be injected into prison systems, transforming them. Hamm believes that people will own their problems and work on them if given the chance. If the problem is illiteracy -- and it is for thousands behind bars -- “get them information on literacy. Let them read books on girls, boys, motors, sports, anything that will get them to read. Then cluster them with those with the same interest,” Hamm said. They will motivate each other.

“Put 12 people who want to be mechanics together,” Hamm said, “and mechanics will be down at the warden’s office trying to hire these guys as soon as they get out.”

Hamm urges monitoring offenders so that those who solve their problems violently will stay in the traditional prison system, while others will be promoted to places that offer opportunities for self-improvement.

The same holds true for prison personnel, he said: Promote those who favor rehabilitation, and they will attract like-minded people.

Hamm has taken his ideas to audiences of jurists and sociologists in California and Arizona. Having seen firsthand that much of prison life is about “harming and hurting,” he said he now wants to live out the principle enunciated by Mahatma Gandhi: “You become the change you hope to see in the world.”

--Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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