This story was first published by the Boise Weekly on Aug. 10, 2023.
Dave Fisher spent 26 years working as an engineer in Idaho. He had a house, two children and two dogs, and considered himself a “very happy, successful person” — but that all changed in 2013 when he was charged with three counts of witness intimidation.
Fisher served a total of seven years at the Idaho State Correctional Center. His biggest takeaway from those years in prison? The system doesn’t work.
“The amount of ‘rehabilitation’ I went through in prison isn’t just zero, it’s a negative number,” Fisher said. “Prison separated me from my children, home, pets, job and friends. The prison system is a warehouse where you are stored with absolutely no guidance on how to become a better person — I left prison far worse than when I went in.”
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Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013, which he said explained a lot of his behavior that led to his arrest. After serving several years, Fisher was released but was quickly pulled back into the system for violating his probation.
“When I first got out, I went to get my medication and they said it would be $312, but I didn’t have that much,” Fisher said. “I was just released and I wasn’t working, so I put it off and a few weeks later I could feel myself slipping.”
Rehabilitation, resources needed to help Idahoans who were incarcerated
This is a common problem within the justice system. In 2017, Idaho had the highest rate of people in prison due to a parole or probation violation, said Erica Marshall, founder of the Idaho Justice Project, with over 60% of inmates incarcerated for violating parole/probation.
“We need to rehabilitate and really direct resources to individuals both while they’re incarcerated and upon their return back into the community so that we’re really setting them up for success,” Marshall said. “So many people that I talk to get caught up in this never ending cycle of arrest, incarceration and release.”
Despite his struggles upon release, Fisher said his experience in prison itself was a lot better than it is for many other inmates.
“I fell on incredibly good luck while I was in prison because my cellmate worked on software in the prison library,” Fisher said. “I was telling him about my accomplishments at Micron, and he said he’d put in a good word for me to help with software in the chapel.”
The “good word” worked and Fisher was hired to work on software in the prison chapel, which is one of just a handful of jobs available to prisoners that would utilize Fisher’s skillset.
Fisher’s prison reform proposal includes advocacy for 12-step program
By 2017, Fisher was enjoying his work at the Idaho State Correctional Center, but “was still not at ease” because he felt like he should be able to use his time “to accomplish something to make the system better.”
At his job in the chapel, Fisher learned about a peer support group from one of his coworkers which inspired him to spend the next several years designing a prison reform proposal. Fisher began working on a proposal that would “truly rehabilitate inmates,” and he is still making improvements and changes six years later.
The proposal emphasizes the importance of inmates “performing the majority of their psychological rehabilitation through interactions with each other.” Taking inspiration from the support group Fisher’s coworker mentioned, the proposal has inmates going through a program that combines cognitive behavioral therapy with the 12-step program, similar to the process used in Alcoholics Anonymous (unlike AA, however, it doesn’t require a belief in a “higher power”).
Under Fisher’s reform proposal, inmates would all be given a personality and a criminal sensitivity test — based on the results, inmates are then paired up to work through the program together. Those who struggle to maintain a one-on-one partner would gather to work in a group format.
The other main aspect of his proposal would change how and when inmates are released. Fisher believes that inmates should regularly undergo psychological testing to determine “whether they are safe to be released into society.” The reform releases inmates based on their actual status and wellbeing, as opposed to relying on other factors such as mandatory minimums.
Early drafts of the proposal were written by hand in a notebook, as Fisher was still incarcerated and using whatever resources were available. During this time, Fisher’s uncle, Fred Barber, regularly assisted him on the proposal since Fisher couldn’t always access a computer.
Over the years, Fisher and Barber sent emails to well over 2,000 people across the world, looking for endorsements and feedback. And the proposal did receive a handful of endorsements from psychology professors, including one from Boise-based psychologist Dr. David Cummins.
“(Fisher’s proposal) is detailed and well thought out … but even really tepid reforms get shot down (in Idaho),” said Julia Piaskowski, founder of the Idaho Prison Project Blog.
To be as realistic as possible, Fisher designed his reform to be implemented in tiers, with the first tier being tested on only a handful of inmates. But before that can happen, Fisher said he needs to gain more public support and awareness regarding his proposal and the flaws of the prison system.
When asked why he has put so much time into this project over the last decade, Fisher said, “I knew prison didn’t work, but I have an engineering mindset and I like to fix things.”