headshot of Ralph Spinelli
Ralph Spinelli

Ralph Spinelli, a third year Ph.D. student in the Goldman School of Public Policy, recently published his book Prison as Punishment—a memoir about his two prison terms in California and Oregon that were 20 years apart. After he was released in 2000 he applied to the University of San Francisco and earned a B.S. in English at age 61, then followed that up with an M.F.A. from St. Mary’s College.

Starting three years ago, he enrolled in the public policy program at UC Berkeley, where he’s focusing on how the states are handling the aging prison population. Having changed his own life, Spinelli is now trying to bring about an even more spectacular transformation, reforming the criminal justice system. He questions what the states are doing to prepare for the aging population. “The fastest growing segment of convicts are over 50…they have different psychological and physical needs than 20 year olds,” Spinelli says.

In his book, Spinelli suggests new policies that could lower recidivism rates and improve the well-being of prisoners. His proposals include offering a lower bunk to inmates over the age of 50, offering preventative medical care such as prostate cancer screening, and allowing inmates to buy incontinence products. He says that these small, low-cost measures could greatly improve the treatment of the elderly prison population.

When he’s not studying, he teaches a criminal justice class at St. Mary’s College and is often a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley and Laney College and speaks to politicians about prison reform. His past 15 years of education have convinced him that post-incarceration education is the key to success. “We lock people up because we’re mad at them, with no thought about what we want coming out of prison,” Spinelli says. He suggests that part of the three-year parole plan should be to go to school, do an apprenticeship or learn another marketable skill. “The safest, most comfortable place for anyone during that transitional period is a campus setting,” Spinelli adds.

Cynthia Chandler, an attorney who focuses on human rights injustices related to imprisonment, met Spinelli 10 years ago when he called her organization to brainstorm ways to collaborate. She is amazed by his networking ability and notes his recent invitation for her to mentor students on projects at St. Mary’s. “There are not that many people who have figured out how to have an impactful voice after being released from prison.” She adds that his accessible writing style and insider-knowledge of the prison system gives him a unique position from which to initiate reform. “I really believe that if significant social change will happen, it will be because people who are directly impacted by problems come up with solutions,” Chandler says.

At 74 years old, Spinelli says that although it took him most of his life to learn his lessons, education is what saved him. In the future, he plans on meeting with Oregon prisoners who have received life sentences to encourage them to begin writing—a tool that has helped him collect his thoughts and to share his story.