Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some Issues Aren't Even Talked About During Elections: Penal Reform

I haven't been terribly active either reading blogs or commenting on Huffington Post for a little while, as (excluding my period of burnout when I was not reading or commenting anywhere) I have been busier with my own blog and with reading/commenting on the blogs on my 'Required Reading' list. I get their daily brief in my email, however, usually check it, and read through those articles that particularly interest me.

Today, after finishing work for the late night/morning, I happened to open up my email and catch up on Monday's daily brief. I was very pleased find this article about life in the California Institute for Men in Chino, California, by Mark Olmsted. Mr. Olmsted, spurred by recent events there, shared his own experience as a prisoner in CIM and offered his thoughts on a possible solution to at least some aspects of the problem of prison violence.

"Those inmates willing to sign a statement committing to nonviolence and a rejection of racial politics during their sentence would be housed separately from those unwilling to do so. These "N" inmates would get extra privileges, like Saturday mail and more phone time. They could bunk or cell with any race. Any "N" inmate caught in a fight would be sent to housing in which inmates had not signed a pledge, where they could continue to fraternize exclusively with their own race, etc."

I have seen worse ideas, far worse. Of course, it's entirely possible this idea appeals to me solely because of my experiences and worldview growing up in the (pacifist) Mennonite Church. I have a natural predilection toward nonviolence that is as fixed in my philosophical make-up as opposition to abortion and gay rights is fixed in the philosophical make-up of many fundamentalists. However, a quote by HuffPoreader 'coaldust' makes me think it may not just be me:

"Mark; This may come as a shock to you, but I'm a conservative that occasionally comes to HP to get the other side of the story, whatever that story may be. A LOT of conservatives come to HP for that very reason. As you can guess, I don't post often, but I'd like to say that you make a very good point regarding separating non-violent inmates from violent ones. This is a point that I think reasonable people; liberal, conservative, or people in between, can identify with, and agree with. I think people get the mistaken image that prison makes animals out of people, but only because a lot of the "animals" were animals before they got into prison, and they prey on non-violent prisoners for their own purposes. Just as they prey on society."

Clearly, someone with very different views and experiences than myself had a very similar reaction to this article.

All of which, combined with the recent riots at CIM of course, has me giving penal reform a bit of thought again. While this is a problem with no easy solution, as none of the three main justifications for our prison system (deterrence, punishment OR rehabilitation) are being adequately served by our present system. This is primarily because these three competing justifications are all being advanced simultaneously, by different people and forces, without regard for the reality of the situation and often by people who somehow wish to combine three competing goals in ways that just are not possible. So instead of a place of punishment or rehabilitation, or a deterrent example, we have a place to warehouse people.

Many of the flaws in our prisons are much like the flaws in our school system. Indeed, it could be said the biggest flaw of our school system is that it is too much like our prison system. Both serve primarily, or so it seems, to warehouse dependent segments of society (the poor, in the case of prisons, and children, in the case of schools) so that none of the rest of us have to deal with them or their issues. Of course, the massive economic cost of warehousing our rather large prison population is at least as serious a concern as the right's obsession with the cost of Medicare. And unlike Medicare, where costs keep growing because the program is succeeding so far beyond expectations, I don't think most people would call our criminal justice system a success so far. Not when examining our prison population and comparing it to our crime rate. I think even the right wingers advocating harsher measures would have to admit they are advocating such measures because of the lack of success of the current system.

So what to do about it?

Well, for a start, we have to acknowledge that it actually exists and address it in our public discussion. We talk about 'crime' a lot, but really don't take the time needed to analyze our overburdened prison system.

It's about time we start.


Mark said...

Wow, thanks so much Chris, you have a great blog and your comments were very astute and much appreciated. I shall be reading you for sure.

Sheria said...

Mark sent me the link to your blog and I'm glad that Unfortunately, I agree that you are on target in paralleing the ineffectiveness of schools and prisons. At least school reform is part of the discourse although most of that conversation is so far removed from a valid analysis that coming up with solutions is not a likely result. As for reform of the penal system, as point out so accurately, we're not even having that discussion. The only discussion most of our elected officals are having is focused on demonstrating that they are tough on crime, which includes making prisons dismal places where inmates suffer and the rest of us can feel satisfaction that those horrible criminals are being punished. We worship at the altar of vengeance and retribution and have completely buried the notion of rehabilitation.

Chris Richards said...

Thank you both for your comments, I'm very glad for the extra bit of attention. More readers are always welcome. :)

I do admit that I have serious doubts about the effects of 'rehabilitation', not because I am philosophically opposed to it and supportive of 'punishment' (far the opposite) but rather because the fact that no one can be rehabilitated against their will makes the goal of prisons as places of large scale rehabilitation extremely difficult (if not impossible) to achieve.

However, I believe that programs for those inmates who do want to be rehabilitated are extremely important. Not only from a moral perspective, but from a pragmatic perspective as well. Rehabilitation is in everyone's interests.

Leslie Parsley said...

Interesting piece. Prison reform comes and goes as a hot topic but nothing much ecer comes of it - sort of like health care reform. Everybody wants it but they really don't, if you get my point.

Chris Richards said...

"Everybody wants it but they really don't, if you get my point."

I do, and it's really very much on the nose. Lots of people on the left want to reform mandatory sentencing guidelines or experiment with pilot programs... but there is a complete lack of political will to make meaningful policy changes (even in the areas of mandatory sentencing) among politicians, even most of them on the left. The simple fact is that most Americans believe 'tough on crime' is a matter of religious faith, and that anything 'soft on crime' is an unforgivable political sin.

Of course, the problem is that our 'tough on crime' policies have not solved the problem and some evidence suggests they may have made it much, much worse.