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Prison Reform: An Insider’s Story

Ralph Spinelli takes prison reform personally.

The Goldman School doctoral student served two terms in state penitentiaries for armed robbery, first in Oregon and then in California. His experience fuels his doctoral research and propelled him to write Prison as Punishment, which combines firsthand accounts of life inside prison with policy analysis and recommendations.

“My most recent term convinced me that nothing about how we incarcerate people is productive or providing anything for society beyond a money drain,” says Ralph. “In 2012, California spent $11.5 billion on corrections. 90% of that was for payroll. The recidivism rate is 83%.”

Ralph's doctoral research explores the impact that post-incarceration education, both vocational and academic, has on recidivism.

“Education saved my life,” says Ralph, who holds an MFA in writing and now teaches criminal justice at St. Mary's College. “The period after inmates are first released is the riskiest for re-offending. There is a lot of data to support that education helps people realize they have choices.”

Ralph cites his participation in Oregon’s Project Newgate, which combined counseling, group therapy, college study, and financial help to transition inmates to college and back into the community.

“Initially, I saw it as a way out of prison, and didn’t care about the education itself,” recalls Ralph. “By the time I was serving time in Pelican Bay State Prison, I had a different outlook.”

Ralph remembers a cellmate in Pelican Bay who seemed to look for ways to offend those around him. Ralph strongly challenged him to get an education, then helped him draft and re-draft a letter to Riverside Community college to present his case.

“Ten days later, a letter arrived from Riverside Community College,” Ralph remembers. “My cellmate was so nervous, his hands were shaking.”

The letter was from someone in the admissions office who offered help with counseling, financial aid and housing. A year and a half later, Ralph received a letter from his former cellmate listing his accomplishments: he was in school and doing well. He had his own apartment, a job and was growing close to his family again.

It is experiences like these that make Ralph such a passionate advocate for criminal justice reform. And he is finding ways to extend the influence of both his research and experience into real-life situations.

“Oregon has opened its doors to me and my research,” he says. “And they’ve also been very open to my advice on education and other issues. For example, they have a population of aging prisoners who have needs that twenty-somethings don’t have. There are simple things you can do to make sure that people are treated like human beings. I want to make sure they are allowed to keep some of their dignity.”