A panel of former inmates of Delaware's prison system spoke about life behind bars and after during a forum April 11 sponsored by the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.
The five participants – some of whom only gave their first names – called for more programs for inmates and more training for prison officers. They also told an audience of about 70 in Lewes that they learned a lot about themselves while incarcerated.
In answer to a question asking whether prison was an appropriate punishment for their crimes, most said yes.
“I was hard-headed and stubborn,” said Melissa, who spent time at Delores Baylor Women's Correctional Institution. “I was in prison before I was in prison, if that makes sense. But hitting the bottom, it woke me up.”
She said going to prison was the only way she was going to straighten up, and she needed to be there in order to change.
“I know who I was then, and I know who I am now. The only thing I can do now is go forward,” she said.
Brian Winward spent 28 years in prison. He also said he learned a lot about himself, and he gained new strengths and friends.
“What's taken away, you get replacements,” he said. “There are great losses, but there are great gains.”
Daniel Paskins said his time behind bars gave him the opportunity to focus on becoming a better person.
“Having that time by myself to deal with my identity … now that I'm out, I know who I am,” he said. “But it took so much for me, personally.”
Tony Neal, now a case manager of The Way Home in Georgetown, said he wished things had been different when he was arrested as a kid for attempted murder.
“If someone had done something different, then things could've been different in my life,” he said.
Instead, he said, he feels like he was thrown into the prison system, which made him an angrier person.
“I wasn't a bad kid, but I made some bad decisions,” he said.
Several inmates said their punishment fit their crime. “I did my time, and that's all I have to say,” said Melvin.
Still, Winward said the Department of Correction must do more to work with offenders and return them to society as law-abiding, productive citizens.
“Corrections is a great idea, but it lacks a lot in practicality,” he said. “It can be better, and that's my hope.”
He said most prison officers are good people who are working for a paycheck to feed their families. He estimated about 15 percent at times treat prisoners as less than human. “But I've never supported violence,” he said, referring to a prison siege at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that resulted in the death of a prison officer.
Conditions in prison also need improvement, said Paskins. He said he remembers taking showers that were too hot or too cold. The temperature of shower water is dictated by temperatures outside, he said. “If it's 90 degrees outside, then the showers are 90. If it's 20 below, the showers are just like that,” he said.
Paskins said he has heard about recent mistreatment of prisoners at the prison from relatives who have talked to inmates. “They're feeding people less than what they say. Some are denied medication,” he said.
The SDARJ will hold a book club meeting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 25, at the Lewes Library. For more information, go to www.sdarj.org.