“Someone has to care about these prisoners. These people’s lives are at stake. Someone could do 10 to 15 years and genuinely want to change but they don’t get the chance to.” –Roger Stiger, 2022

American Flag

In recent times, crime as a whole has become such a difficult topic to talk about on a national scale in the United States due to the complex nature of its causes and the struggle for U.S. citizens to reach a mutual agreement on what the most beneficial preventive measures are. Regardless of citizens’ general standpoints and where they lie, one truth has always remained consistent: It is extremely difficult to politically speak about many aspects of crime without seeming like the person in question is “soft on crime.”

Prison reform has always been a challenging topic to get a hold on. Celebrity figures were, and still are, often labeled as “rebels” for their advocacy to change certain practices of American prisons. Musician Johnny Cash was one of those people who strongly advocated for prison reform throughout his iconic career, and even performed music in prisons on numerous occasions. While the works of Johnny Cash and other advocates certainly shed some well-deserved light on the subject, many problems within American prisons still remain to this day.

To learn more about the inner workings of our prisons, I spent some time speaking to Roger Stiger, a Cincinnati local who I met working at the same job site. Stiger, who is now 32 years old, spent approximately five years in an Ohio prison and completed his sentence nearly a decade ago. Since his release, Stiger has built a reputation as a hard-working man with two daughters and the respect of many who know him.

He was forthcoming about talking through his experiences in the criminal justice system, how it changed him, and how it has helped him guide other important people in his life down the right path thanks to his remarkable recovery. Through speaking with Roger, I was able to better understand the positives and negatives that he dealt with during his sentence, which still hold true for thousands of prisoners in our country to this day.

“When you go in, there are the rules enforced by the prison, and then there’s the rules enforced by the other prisoners. [The prisoners] would often split up into groups based on race, and being a loner would immediately make you a target for these groups,” says Stiger.

He volunteered this detail about the prison he served time in, and mentioned that he believes it is one of the most difficult issues to properly deal with. I also learned that prisoners would split into groups not only based on race, but also based on what city, town, or neighborhood they were from. Stiger even recalled a particular incident where a man was physically assaulted by another inmate, and he lay unconscious on the floor. Despite Stiger’s desire to help the unconscious man, he was unable to because he feared the same would happen to him at the hands of one of the other prison gangs.

“Don’t get involved with something that doesn’t have to do anything with you, because it forces everyone else to get involved,” he says.

I asked Roger more about his time on the inside, leaning more about some of the prison’s attempts to help rehabilitate him and his fellow inmates. His outlook on Ohio’s rehabilitation methods was actually rather positive, and he even went as far to say that Ohio is one of the best states for it.

In his five years at the facility, Stiger was given access to a multitude of educational classes including, but not limited to, carpentry, computer business management, and landscaping.

When I asked Stiger what he thought prisons’ strongest quality regarding rehabilitation was, he quickly answered with education; he believed the classes available to him played an important role in his recovery process following his sentence, and helped him reintegrate himself into society, the intended purpose of the classes. Stiger also mentioned that if he were interested after his sentence, he could have probably showed the certifications that he completed the classes while incarcerated to a community college, and that it would most likely help improve his chances of furthering his education.

The sentiment about the solid educational opportunities in prisons was echoed by Dr. Jeff Hillard, a semi-retired professor at Mount St. Joseph University. I inquired about prison reform as well, and what he thinks we are doing right. As was the case with Stiger, Hillard also agreed that education was the strongest quality.

“One thing the prison industrial complex in this country gets right is that, basically, a majority of incarcerated individuals have terrific access to numerous, really innovative educational opportunities. The influx of online learning has helped contribute to this availability of education,” says Hillard, who taught at three different prisons in Ohio between 2007-2013. He wrote in great detail about his experience teaching incarcerated individuals in his published online magazine, “RED! the breakthrough ‘zine,” , which he worked on between 2006 and 2013.

After learning about the good surrounding prison reform, I asked with Stiger and Hillard about the things that need to be more focus and improvement. Stiger brought up a handful of ideas that he thought were excellent opportunities to help prisoners to make better choices with their lives, including things such as a financial savings account (prisoners will often have their own jobs while incarcerated and will make a small sum of money that they can use inside the prison). Stiger believes that if a savings account were made available for this earned money, it could give people money to be able to use when they get out.

He also said that making it less difficult for prisoners to find employment after being released is an important investment to make. From Hillard’s perspective, drug-related issues cause the inhibition of inmates to properly rehabilitate.

“The statistics are astounding. Well over 80 percent of incarcerated individuals in prisons and jails – men and women alike – have some tie to substance abuse. In Washington D.C. now, in Congress, the biggest lobbying push in our history is occurring to institute innovative drug rehab programs. And I’m fully behind this amped-up effort to do so,” Hillard said.

It is clear that our nation has been given ample time to begin implementing positive ways to help rehabilitate inmates in prison or jail. Savings accounts for inmates and better access to rehab programs for people with substance abuse remain as hopeful possibilities for the future of our criminal justice system and the process of incarceration.

The only thing left to do is to be willing to talk about it. We cannot ignore the issue forever, as there is always the chance that tensions will boil over one day because the problems have never been addressed. There is plenty that we know we should do, and plenty that could help. But we must take the initiative first.