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Time Banking Can Revolutionize Prison

by Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Most evenings in Capanne prison, I visited the Nigerian women who called me “America.” They’d greet me with hugs and a juice box. Then I’d translate their court documents and letters from their Italian boyfriends, and write out their saucy responses, translating pidgin English into proper Italian. I did this both out of compassion and self-interest. The social capital I earned through my literacy helped me more safely navigate my prison community.

Most of my fellow prisoners suffered from some combination of trauma, mental illness, and drug addiction. Crowded together in tight quarters, we came to view each other—quite rationally—as potential threats and competition for scarce resources. This corrosive dynamic dwarfed any positive effect from the occasional rehabilitation programs offered, like theoretical beekeeping (seriously, beekeeping sans the bees). True rehabilitation will require not just better programs, but a fundamental change in the incentives that shape prison life. We could achieve this by harnessing the already existing forms of social capital that prisoners generate organically. One of the most promising ways to do this is an idea known as ‘time banking.’

Most prisoners want nothing more than to get out of prison as fast as possible. Currently, our system takes advantage of this in two ways. The first is good time credit. By maintaining an exemplary record, prisoners become eligible to have their sentences reduced. This does not incentivize positive behavior, but rather disincentivizes (getting caught) committing infractions. 

The second is earned time credit. By successfully completing rehabilitative programming, prisoners become eligible to serve time at the end of their sentence in home confinement, rather than prison. Earned time credit affirmatively incentivizes rehabilitation, but it has a crucial flaw: prisoners convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, crimes involving firearms, and those considered at risk of reoffending―the people most in need of rehabilitation―are excluded from receiving earned time credit.

The current state of rehabilitative programming is simply not rehabilitative enough. In 2018, the Department of Justice reported that 44% of prisoners released in 2005 were rearrested within a year of their release from prison. That number rose to 83% arrested within nine years of their release. 

This is not because the vast majority of prisoners are incorrigible sociopaths. It’s because, in large part, rehab programs are like Band-Aids on a festering sore. Being forced to adapt to a prison world that rewards violence and punishes vulnerability makes a person ill-adjusted to life in a civil society. As former bank robber and inmate Shon Hopwood told me, “There are certain ways that I still respond, eleven years out of prison. When you have conflict, there is no deescalation, it’s fight or flight. That’s not a great way to deal with conflict with a spouse.”

And when prisoners do thrive against the odds, the prison system has the ugly habit of taking credit for their success. At trial, one prosecutor commented on my studious demeanor and exemplary record by saying, “Prison has been very good for her,” as if being forced to witness a cellmate off her meds rip out another woman’s hair or fend off sexual harassment from guards had improved my moral character. A federal prosecutor once told Shon Hopwood—who, went on to become a law professor at Georgetown University after serving his time for robbery—”You’re the prime example of why the system works.” If that were true, why don’t we see a lot more Shon Hopwoods?

Hopwood taught himself the law by spending countless hours in the law library writing briefs and litigating other prisoners’ cases. Like myself, he transformed his personal interest and ability into social currency in the prison’s marketplace of time and energy. It served him well.

But not all prisoners are self-starters, and the biggest and meanest typically get by with violence and intimidation which trickles down through the prison social hierarchy. Rehabilitation programs alone cannot fix this broken dynamic, but time banking can.

Time banking is an alternative economic model in which the base unit of exchange is time, often the person-hour. By rendering a service to the community, a person earns a time credit that can be used to compensate someone else’s service. Time banking dates back to the early 19th century, but has regained prominence last year through, among other things, Andrew Yang’s presidential bid

Unlike monetary banking, time banking values all human time equally. By rewarding activities that have social utility but are ignored by the monetary economy, time banking fosters community building. In a time banking system, a handyman might install his neighbor’s lighting fixture. A minivan mom might provide rides to the airport. A group of teenagers might pick up litter at the park. By directly incentivizing community contributions, time banking encourages individuals to feel useful, and to see each other as assets to their own wellbeing.

This is what is lacking from prison rehabilitation. Instead of merely disincentivizing violence and rule-breaking and offering earned time credit only through top-down programs to those least at risk of recidivism, we could implement a time banking system for proactive, positive social engagement between prisoners. This would allow prisoners to earn time off their sentences by, say, teaching their cellmate how to read, or helping someone prepare a legal brief, or even repairing a pair of reading glasses. These are all hustles that exoneree friends of mine did while serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. 

Time banking would harness and amplify that natural hustle, rewarding each prisoner for contributing to their community, and inviting them to value themselves and their fellow prisoners as assets in each other’s individual and communal betterment, instilling habits that would serve them well on the outside. 

Imagine if the stereotype of the ex-con was someone who was effusively helpful—more so than your average citizen. It’s not so far-fetched. If our current prison dynamic is a factory for breeding antisocial behavior, a thriving time banking community based around mutual aid would not only make prison more humane, it would function as a laboratory for building better citizens. 

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