Incarceration

We do not live in a culture that believes in redemption. Single tweets destroy decades-long careers, a video dug up from 15 years ago can do the same thing. Moral outrage is a political tool, the moral argument in politics begins with “Look what an advocate for this once said”, which is met with a similarly disparaging remark from someone on the other side of the argument.  “Look what Jeff Sessions said a few years back” is met with the fact that Democrat legend Robert Byrd was a high-ranking member in the KKK.. In fact, a large part of the discussion today is noticing that the people who supported something when Obama was in office are now against it with Trump, and those who support what is essentially Obamacare were vehemently against it when Obamacare wasn’t being threatened.  It doesn’t take long to see that the culture is made up of hypocrites with a fetish for magnifying the sins of others. Especially those they do not know and who’s misfortunes they are unaffected by. In fact, this distance makes the pouncing all the more cathartic. We’ll discuss two examples.

This past year, a guy with the twitter handle “HanAssholeSolo” tweeted a short clip from a WWE event Donald Trump was involved in (WrestleMania 23, 2007). The sequence saw Trump attack an opponent, only this time, the guy’s face was transposed with the CNN logo. CNN went, found the guy, and essentially threatened to expose his name, and the various racially insensitive tweets he had posted. The guy was a known internet troll.  CNN later celebrated that they had beaten this guy by saying they would not reveal his name because he had issued an apology and said he would not troll around again, adding later however “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” (Kacynski, 2017) This was seen by many as blackmail; “if you make another meme making fun of us, we’ll ruin you” Interestingly, the response from those who supported CNN did so by saying “I guess you shouldn’t have posted those things then.”

In 2015, the website Ashley Madison, which markets itself as a group that helps married people, or people in committed relationships arrange extra-relational affairs, was hacked. (Zetter, 2015)  Massive amounts of customer data was released. It led to an ethical discussion, both on infidelity and exposure of private information that can/will be damaging, but the response from people who were unaffected seemed to be “you probably shouldn’t have been on that.”

In watching the fallout from the CNN blackmail this year and the Ashley Madison hack in 2015, the common thread of the conversation seemed to fall under either “Well, I guess they shouldn’t have done that or said that”. They look at these poor schlubs who have suddenly had dark secrets either exposed or had someone threaten to expose them, and not only do they not think it can happen to them, but they seem more than happy to point out that it happened to someone else.

It is from this position of “I’m not affected” where people advocate harsher sentences for even minor crimes like weed possession or theft. We hear it coated in the “concerned citizen” language of a longer, 3 to 4 year sentence being either a just punishment or that it is protecting society at large from the guy who stole a TV or possessed .02 pounds of marijuana.

And in these cases and after the sentence for major crimes (assault and rape) is served, the judgement continues. “I don’t know, they should’ve kept him in for longer, they may do it again”, and it is always “They” never “we”. Two points on that matter, if they are too dangerous to let out, they shouldn’t be let out. The problem with that however is you can’t gauge how dangerous a person -might- be. At the same time, again, the person suggesting an extended sentence on top of the one the person already served is unaffected by the extension. On the notion that “he might do it again”, yes he might. In fact, we practically encourage it in this country. Because of a possession or theft conviction, his job prospects are shot, he may never own a home, he can’t really support a family, or afford a halfway decent apartment,

in certain cases, he can’t even get welfare. What other choice does the individual have other than a life of crime?

The so-called “correctional” system does not encourage correction, and society doesn’t help. Andrew Skotnicki notes in the book Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church, that when we see the prisoner as now a constant threat, we decide it is best to nullify the threat, real or imagined, and throw it in a box where it can rot safely within thick cement walls. (Skotnicki, 2008) Theologian N.T. Wright suggests that “we are putting into prison alongside [murderers, rapists] a great many others who, if other forms of punishment could be found (service, especially in areas of great need) could escape that life and become responsible members of society.” Whenever we do this, Wright notes, the accusation is that we are going soft on crime. (Wright, 2011)

Indeed, we are not going soft on crime, but rather on the individual himself, and this is where the disconnect lies. Again, these people are in prison for a reason, are they not? They should’ve taken better care of themselves. This is basically saying “not my problem”. L. Lynette Parker of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation at the Prison Fellowship notes this exclusive focus on the criminal’s lack of individual responsibility “allows lawmakers, criminal justice professions and society to ignore” the external factors. These factors being institutional forces benefiting from a destructive status quo (i.e. the prison-industrial complex) the image of the criminal making the public indifferent (“The bad people are being dealt with by someone else”) and, a safe emphasis on personal responsibility when legality interferes with survival where one might tell the convict “you should’ve taken more responsibility for yourself”. (Parker, 2012)

I do not believe that prison is a deterrent to crime. When one is motivated to commit a crime, consider the factors that may lead to such behavior. It could be a selfish rush the suspect gets in the commission of break-in, it could be basic survival, in the more violent cases, it may be sheer rage, in any of these cases, when the punishment is a long way off, and especially considering that the above three are immediate, adrenal surges, prison doesn’t factor into that equation. The suspect may have considered it, and we can say it’s enough for us, but we then have to consider what kind of mindset sees what we see (ten, twenty years in prison) and decides this is worth it anyway. Prison is a deterrent only when someone is afraid of prison. All this before we get to the destructive impact of incarceration on ones family both financially and especially in terms of a child’s well-being.

While private prisons only contribute fewer than 10% of the prison population, they are becoming increasingly common. (Benson, 2015)  The two aspects Parker discusses that we can do something about, are the image of criminal as interchangeably incurable when they’re not irresponsible and reduce the emphasis of the safe, narrow “personal responsibility” argument.

The first argument starts with the contrast of “Thank you God that I’m not like them” and the phrase “There but by the grace of God go I”. The latter is an acknowledgement that another’s misfortune could very easily be ones own. The former states, in this context that other people are “more sinful” because they’re in prison and implies that the speaker could never be in the kind of situation that gets them arrested. To that notion, if one is comfortably not in the same socioeconomic position, then perhaps it is less likely you may find yourself arrested for theft, but what about the other crimes? How close is the rich man from being arrested for fraud? What about abuse? The person who has everything begins to feel entitled and above the rules. Realistically, it probably depends on the lawyer, but he’s guilty in one way or another. This however, only strengthens the point, is the one in prison for assault “more sinful” than the one getting away with abuse because nobody can see the scars that one leaves behind?

And this might be the autistic in me -I am actually autistic, calm down – but when I see this argument debated, they use such final terms. These people are, incurable, unfixable (what a gaudy word that is), they’re repeat offenders, once a criminal always a criminal, I don’t often see the word “irredeemable”. “Redeem” is a very religious word. We use it now in the context of turning in a winning lottery ticket or a coupon, or in a sense, when a professional or college athlete comes off a cold streak, but never in a greater sense. When it is used properly, the word “redeem” implies a path to the way things used to be before something went wrong.

Texas has sort of led the charge on the “lock them em and forget em” mentality. This however, seems to be changing as it has become a sort of US laboratory for criminal justice reform. In 2005, Texas’ prisons were nearly at full capacity. That same year, two legislators, a Democratic Senator and Republican Representative, began to see that mass-incarceration wasn’t cost-efficient nor useful. They introduced a bill allocating millions to treatment for some offenders, a reduction in sentences for some one probation. It became law in 2007 and began a surge of similar legislation aimed at reducing incarceration in Texas. This has reduced the prison population by 10,000 and given hope to those who complete their terms that there is room to lead a decent life. (Mark, 2017)

New Zealand has become the example of a system that may seem strange to us, but has proven effective and is beginning to spring up in the US. They call it “restorative justice”. It is an “informal, facilitated meeting between a victim, offender, support people” and others like representatives or interpreters. They’ve run their juvenile system this way since 1989 and it became an option for adults in 2002. (McElrea, 2012)  This meeting is voluntary on both sides. If the victim, or their representative as the case may be, refuses to meet with the perpetrator, they are not encouraged any further. Restorative justice in New Zealand has resulted in shorter prison sentences.  In America, restorative justice has only been reserved for juveniles and exists in a handful of states including Pennsylvania, Texas and California. However, an FBI report suggests that the process has led to fewer repeat offenders and called for its use across the country. (Newton, 2016)

One specific alternative to prison for drug users, specifically heroin, that has gained popularity recently are so-called “supervised injection sites”. These are, as the name suggests, places where heroin addicts can shoot up under supervision and without the threat of criminal prosecution. The end goal here is treatment and rehabilitation whenever it is possible. Additionally, should someone overdose, there are nurses on standby. During the first year of the program in Denmark, 135 people overdosed. None of them died. (Overgaard, 2013) This system may have its first American test run in Seattle, Washington and nearby King County where the rate of overdose deaths tripled over the course of 6 years

Now, as mentioned in the beginning, this is not a culture that embraces restoration. In July of 2017, St. Louis prisoners were calling for relief from constant 100 degree days in an old prison. State Rep. Joshua Peters toured the prison and noted mold, mice and insects all over the facility. (Murphy, 2017) The response from many was “if you didn’t do anything wrong, you wouldn’t be there.” You can say “well that’s the internet”, but considering the arguments often made on TV, even in protests, it can no longer be said that the internet is somehow divorced from the real world. Where anonymity doesn’t exist (like social media) the realization one will likely never live that life, or be called out to their face for their opinions serve as enough of a buffer for people to say what they may actually mean.

What the acceptance of the current justice system suggests is that America is a nation of judgmental sadists believing they are not simply better people than those in prison, but “more human”. In many cases, one cannot rationally claim that the punishment fits the crime. For instance, the idea that people who are caught with a plant are sentenced to 5 years in prison should come across as patently absurd. Moreover, it doesn’t deter the behavior it’s presence is supposed to prevent.  That someone can say that they are protecting the individual “from themselves” is Orwellian in general, and something like the most overbearing parent one can imagine when we’re not talking about violent offenders. What we call the “correctional system” is based on throwing criminals into a cement box, leaving them to alone to think about what they did for 15-20 years and letting them back into the world where they have practically no hope for gainful employment and are practically encouraged to steal again as a means of survival.  The largest resistance to the concept of restorative justice seems to lie with those who see the criminal as someone who deserves whatever they get and believes such from a position of comfort, or those with a vested interest in maintaining this ineffective, outdated and destructive system whose defining characteristic is that it creates what it pretends to prevent.

 

References

Benson, T. (2015, April 10). The 4 Biggest Reasons so Many Americans are Behind Bars. Retrieved from Attn:: https://www.attn.com/stories/1382/fixing-americas-mass-incarceration-problem

JCJC, P. (2017). Our Balanced and Restorative Justice Missions. Retrieved from PA Juvenile Court Judges’ Commision: http://www.jcjc.pa.gov/Balanced-Restorative-Mission/Pages/default.aspx

Kacynski, A. (2017, July 5). How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump Wrestling GIF. Retrieved from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/04/politics/kfile-reddit-user-trump-tweet/index.html

Mark, M. (2017, July 29). “Texas is shedding it’s lock-em up image thanks to a 37-year old tattooed lawyer”. Retrieved August 2, 2017, from Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/texas-criminal-justice-reform-conservatives-liberals-bipartisan-alliance-2017-7

McElrea, F. W. (2012, January 10). Twent Years of Restorative Justice in New Zeland. Retrieved from Tikkun: http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/twenty-years-of-restorative-justice-in-new-zealand

Murphy, D. (2017, July 22). St. Louis Workhouse Getting A/C as Inmates Beg for Heat Relief. Retrieved from Riverfront Times: https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2017/07/22/st-louis-workhouse-getting-a-c-as-inmates-beg-for-heat-relief

Newton, L. D. (2016, October). Restorative Justice and Youthful Offenders. Retrieved from FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin: https://leb.fbi.gov/2016/october/restorative-justice-and-youthful-offenders

Our Balanced and Restorative Justive Mission. (2017). Retrieved from PA Jevenile Court Judges Commission: http://www.jcjc.pa.gov/Balanced-Restorative-Mission/Pages/default.aspx

Overgaard, S. (2013, December 16). Denmark’s ‘Fix Rooms’ Give Drug Users a Safe Haven. Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/12/16/246606797/denmarks-fix-rooms-give-drug-users-a-safe-haven

Parker, L. L. (2012). Center for Christian Ethics. Retrieved 2017, from https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/163067.pdf

Piper, J. (2011). Desiring God. In J. Piper, Desiring God (p. 189). Multinmah Books.

Skotnicki, A. (2008). Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. In A. Skotnicki, Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. Rowan & Littlefield.

Wright, N. (2011). Evil and the Justice of God. IVP Books.

Zetter, K. (2015, August 18). Hackers Finally Post stolen Ashley Madison data. Retrieved from Wired: https://www.wired.com/2015/08/happened-hackers-posted-stolen-ashley-madison-data/

 

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