Rave On: Mis-Prison of Felonies

The correction of anti-social behavior; the control of dangerous individuals; the transformation of predators into co-operative, productive citizens; exacting revenge on those who have done injury: these are issues that have plagued society since pre-history. Solutions of all sorts have been proposed, from the Draconian (named for a particularly enthusiastic proponent of the death penalty) to the "permissive."

We have 2,000 years and more of recorded history of these various experiments to draw on. Why are we so little further ahead than we were in the time of the Pharaohs? The fact of the matter is that in many countries the judicial/penal system is barely distinguishable from its BC counterpart.

Despite the agitations of Amnesty International and other Human Rights groups, torture and recreational abuse of prisoners is widespread. Food and living conditions are routinely at or below the lowest levels the society will tolerate for its free citizens. It is almost impossible for people who have not been there to understand how oppressive and stressful the prison environment is, physiologically as well as psychologically. Large numbers of prisoners die in prison each year, from malnutrition, medical neglect, accidents and at the hands of their fellow prisoners or guards.

In the US, we like to think our system is significantly better - and it is. But "somewhat better than the ninth circle of hell" is still not very good. It is one thing for a country that still refers all moral and social questions to the authority of abitrary religious judgment, or that suffers under the domination of a dictatorial strong-man or oligarchy whose only criterion is self-interest, to treat those whom it defines as "criminal" with brutal inhumanity.

It is another thing for the richest nation on earth, with vast resources of man-power, intelligence and money, to abandon a growing percentage of its own citizens to lives of brutal degradation and hopeless violence. For our country, that aspires to be a beacon to the world of moral and social organization, and that has the knowledge and resources to do otherwise, to continue to embrace the ridiculously ineffective (in fact, counter-productive) ruinously costly, cruelly humiliating system we currently operate is a crime against both reason and our society.

We are creating an ever-increasing class of dis-enfranchised, de-humanized, un-employable, hopeless men with a history of brutal, anti-social behavior and then turning them loose on our streets. James Gilligan, who spent 25 years as head of Psychiatric Services for the State of Massachusetts Department of Corrections has written a book on the ramifications of our current penal system, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (1966). In it he approaches the problem of societal violence from a medical therapeutic standpoint.

If, as Gilligan theorizes, shame - and the neglect and poverty that breed it - are the root cause of violence, then working to minimize neglect, poverty and the resultant shame should decrease crime. In fact, statistics on violent crime from around the country and around the world support that idea. More prosperous communities and societies that take the best care of all their members and support the highest average standard of living and the smallest disparity between rich and poor have the lowest incidence of violence.

Other factors that help individuals escape from poverty and build a sense of self-esteem also have a salutary effect. In looking at the Massachusetts prison system in the 1970Ős and 80Ős, Gilligan noticed that there was one program which cut the rate of recidivism (return to prison) from the standard 80 -90% to 0%. It was an education program that allowed inmates to earn a Bachelors Degree while in prison. Not a single prisoner who did so returned to jail during GilliganŐs tenure.

On the other hand, if humiliation and deprivation are part of the complex out of which violent behavior manifests, we could do no better, Gilligan says, than perpetrate the violence of our penal system on convicted criminals. Most first-time inmates have not committed a violent crime - are not demonstrably violent people - yet over 80% will return to prison for increasingly serious and violent offenses.

If 80% will commit repeat offenses, the larger the number of people we incarcerate, the larger number of repeat offenders we will produce. The United States has the largest percentage of its population in prison of any developed country in the world, surpassing even pre-democracy South Africa and the old Soviet Union, and the percentage continues to grow. Our murder rate has doubled since the 1960Ős in spite of (or could it be because of?) more prisons, ŇtougherÓ laws and more extreme sentences, including capital punishment.

Gilligan's voice is the latest in a series of explorations by concerned individuals into the actual effects of the penal system on the society (as opposed to the mythical effect of "controlling crime"). Jessica Mitford addressed "the penal industry" in her book Kind And Usual Punishment, an analysis and response to the American system. The widely respected psychiatrist, Dr Karl Menninger, studied the same subject and reached similar conclusions in his 1960's era study which he titled, The Crime Of Punishment.

We are not stupid. We can read the handwriting on the wall - or at least the clear statistics produced by our best research. We can change our approach to crime and punishment and improve our response to lower recidivism and provide effective treatment and permanent healing for many of our "criminals." Other countries have done it. Some of our own prison systems have done it in model projects. All we have to do is to be willing to learn from them and to commit our energy and resources to implementing programs which have been shown to be effective.

Instead, demagogues derive as much mileage as possible out of first creating the bogey-man of crime, and then offering themselves as the only force that can protect us from it. Being tough on crime - which translates to re-enforcing and even intensifying the revolving door between brutal punishment and an increase in criminality - continues to be a successful strategy based on the old advertising strategy of creating a need and then offering to fill it.

Today, prison unions (the largest contributor to political campaigns in California, which perhaps co-incidentally has the most extreme "tough-on-crime" attitude), the prison construction industry, law enforcement agencies, the "criminal justice system," including judges and all the court bureaucracies, lawyers and prison administrators, as well as these self-serving politicians support our clearly counter-productive penal methods, because it is from the very failure of that system that their power and their financial security derive.

These groups, in their short-sighted self-interest, are willing to put themselves, their families, and all of us at risk for immediate personal gain. What we have to do is re-introduce the voice of reason into the debate. The scientific studies are out there. The trends are clear. More humane incarceration - applied only when absolutely necessary - coupled with intensive, client-centered treatment, is effective in reducing the crime rate and the rates of recidivism. Education, job-training, counseling, drug treatment and useful employment within the prison system - and on the outside, among "at risk" populations, to prevent crime - reduce the prison population and make those who do become inmates far more likely to eventually re-integrate themselves as contributing members of society.

There will always be a need to segregate a small group of badly damaged individuals - true sociopaths whose deviant psychology is beyond present skill to treat. These cases, however, are estimated at only between 5 and 10 percent of our total prison population. The rest of the prison population is made up of ordinary people - a vastly disproportionate number happen to be poor, people of color, and badly educated - who have been caught making a mistake. More than half our prison population have been jailed for non-violent, drug related offenses. Most of these are low-level street dealers who are addicts themselves.

We can go on taking these small-time offenders and transforming them into potentially violent, truly dangerous criminals through the relentless enlargement and stubborn reduplication of our current, obviously ineffective practices. Or we can try to make a difference in the lives of these, our fellow citizens, by helping them create alternatives to lives of crime both through prevention programs, and through a sincere commitment to rehabilitative treatment. Prevention works. Rehabilitation works. Scientific evidence proves it.

Go into the prisons - see what they are like. Talk to prisoners - ask them how they ended up in jail, why the committed their crimes. Look at the statistics from carefully conducted studies in the US and in other industrialized countries. Then act. Write to your legislators, talk to your local politicians. Oppose the "tough-on-crime" rhetoric with the demonstrable truth of the true costs of such an attitude, and its abject failure. Make elected officials responsible for real improvement in crime statistics. Publicize their failures to do so, and celebrate their successes.

Eugene V. Debs once said - after stint in jail for "sedition," the crime of speaking an unpopular opinion - "While there is a working class, I am in it. While there is a 'criminal element,' I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free." This is not just high-minded rhetoric. We cannot be whole and healthy as a society while we continue to encourage the pathology of prisons. When we consent to the promulgation of despair, shame and violence our criminal justice system creates, we tacitly participate in what is ultimately a self-destructive act, that will come back on our society as a whole and on many of us very personally.

In the immortal words of Denis Miller, "But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

Am I? Why? What's yours?



In the immortal words of Denis Miller, "But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

What do you think? I'd Like to Know.