Prison Reform for the 21st Century

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Prison reform is all the rage. It is a bi-partisan issue. Recent legislation was sponsored in the House of Representatives by 10 Republicans and nine Democrats. The Senate had 32 co-sponsors – half Democrats and half Republicans.

The president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner are supporters. But the bill also has detractors from both parties in both Houses. Some argue that the bill does not go far enough to address the problem of repeat offenders. Others want to include federal sentencing reform. The question is, do any of these bills offer any real hope for change?

Problems With the Existing System

The problems are well known. Prisons are over-crowded. Funding for new prisons is non-existent. Private prisons are criticized for their inhumanity. Prisons offer greater chances of gang indoctrination than rehabilitation. Long term residents teach first-time offenders how to become “better” and more violent second offenders. Existing proposals solve none of these problems.

Perhaps it is time to take a completely different approach. Perhaps its time for the Grunt Corps.

Like it or not, the United States military has served social justice goals almost from its inception. Racial integration, gender integration, and now sexual orientation integration are obvious examples. Military service engenders national pride, respect for authority and comradeship, but also offers social connection, normative role models and social integration.

Military service provides valuable training and, for those who complete their service appropriately, a great many benefits all designed to help reintegration into society. Are these not EXACTLY the right goals of a modern prison system?

Grunt Corps Service Would Be Entirely Voluntary

States would have to make the program available voluntarily. Convicts would have to request service voluntarily. Judges would have to agree to authorize service. The Grunt Corps would be authorized to select its members.

The Carrot and the Stick

Members of the Grunt Corps would receive many “carrots” – training in infrastructure (construction and maintenance), logistics, administrative services, technical services, emergency services (firefighting) and many other services – skills essential to social reintegration.

Corps members would develop pride, self-respect, patriotism, responsibility, comradeship, normative behavior patterns and social skills. If Congress is willing and funding is available, they might also be eligible for modest compensation or some of the normal military benefits at separation.

In short, Grunt Corps members would be treated just like “regular” military but with a few key exceptions, they would not be allowed to train with, or use weapons. They would not face battle other than in a support role. They would be confined to base, at least initially. They might receive modest (if any) compensation and receive only limited benefits at separation. Those who fail to live up to the requirements would be returned to the State justice system and face the “stick” of enhanced sentencing.


On April 30, 2018, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported in the Federal Register that the average cost of incarceration for federal inmates was $34,704.12 ($94.82 per day) in fiscal year (FY) 2016 and $36,299.25 ($99.45 per day) in FY 2017.

The average annual cost in a Residential Re-entry Center was $29,166.54 ($79.69 per day) for FY 2016 and $32,309.80 ($88.52 per day) for FY 2017.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety reported at that the average annual cost per inmate was $36,219 for fiscal 2018. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office reported the average cost in California for 2016-2017 as a whopping $70,812.

On April 29, 2016, Tribute Media Wire reported that, in 2010, the fifteen states with the highest costs of incarceration were New York (#1), New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, California, Washington, Maine, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, North Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska (#15) with costs ranging from $60,076 to $35,950 per year. With strapped budgets, states should be thrilled to save even 10 percent by paying for their convicts to participate in the program.

Benefits to the Military

The Grunt Corps would increase overall military force size by freeing active-duty troops for other duties. The program would be revenue neutral with States paying for the care of their inmates. Military facilities otherwise slated for elimination could, instead, be preserved and re-deployed at minimal cost to serve a new mission.

Grunt Corps Eligibility

The Grunt Corps would not and could not completely replace all prisons, but prisons should be limited to those whose crimes are so heinous, so violent or so anti-social that they are deemed unworthy of an opportunity for rehabilitation, or those determined to be incorrigible recidivists. States could set their own standards, and the Corps would set its own admission standards. The mission of the Grunt Corps: saving those “at risk.”

Grunt Corps Discipline

Military life and basic training come with certain sacrifices and well-known hardships. There are snap inspections, physical training exercises and other aspects of military life which would make the continued use of drugs or other illegal behavior almost impossible and readily detectable.

Phone calls and other communications with the general public could be restricted and monitored. Bases are already “secure” areas so opportunities to interact with the general public could be limited, monitored and controlled.

Those continuing to use drugs or engage in other inappropriate behavior would quickly be identified and sent either to local on-base medical facilities or returned to the state prison system having “flunked out of the Grunt Corps.”

Conscientious Objectors

Since service in the Grunt Corps would be strictly voluntary. Conscientious objectors could choose not to participate. Those choosing to serve would be deemed to have “waived” their objections. Further, since the duties of Corps members would exclude access to firearms and combat, the grounds for objecting should be minimal.


Opposition to this proposal should be expected from those vested in the existing system such as prison guard unions, owner/operators of private prisons and gangs who use prisons for recruitment. Serious consideration of the Grunt Corps program should, at a minimum, motivate these oppositional forces to clean their own houses and improve their own services.

The Grunt Corps is not a panacea. It will not work for everyone, but with a military regimen, military discipline, military esprit de corps, self-confidence building, job training, medical services, programs to assist reintegration to society, a self-funding mechanism and more, the Grunt Corps concept must be given fair consideration.

Contributed by David A Tilem
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Henri Bergius’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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