Posted by Lexington Green on December 11th, 2004 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Ken’s post about crime provoked an interesting comment from Yehudit. Ken suggested, seriously, that prisoners all be kept in solitary confinement. Yehudit correctly noted that this would essentially make them all into mental cases, if they weren’t already. Instead, she pointed to a very interesting organization called the Human Kindness Foundation. I am re-posting this link because I hope more people will read it.
This organization’s site notes the atrocious conditions prevailing in our prisons:
Prisoners currently sleep on floors, in tents, in converted broom closets and gymnasiums, or in double or triple bunks in cells that were designed for one inmate. For the most part, prisons are barbaric, terrifying places … .
Approximately 240,000 brutal rapes occur in our prison system each year. Most of the victims are young, nonviolent male inmates, many of them teenaged first offenders. They are traumatized beyond imagination.
Contrary to political sloganeering, we are not soft on criminals. We are irresponsibly vicious.
They offer some practical proposals, most importantly, separating violent from nonviolent offenders. However, since most of these proposals are couched in terms of forgiveness and compassion, and restorative rather than retributive justice, they have zero political chance of widespread adoption. The mere fact that it is called “Human Kindness” would prevent most people from paying any attention to it.
To state it bluntly, to the typical suburban American, prison inmates are human garbage, period.
This has been my life-long observation. Since I have become a lawyer it has become even clearer, based in particular on (attempted) discussions about protecting the rights of the accused or similar legal pro bono work. If you want to bring genuine hatred to the eyes of otherwise mild-mannered ordinary American, let him or her know you have, as a lawyer, ever done anything to assist prisoners, or even to help people accused of crimes. To do so means you are helping “them”. Get a few beers in a guy, and tell him you got some wrongfully obtained evidence excluded in a criminal prosecution, and the accused was acquitted. He may not say much, but watch his eyes, watch his whole demeanor clench up.
My follow-up observation is that the typical suburban American will therefore not accept any program for prisons which is premised in any way on conferring any kindness or benefit on the prisoner. Our ordinary Joe or Jane sees prisons as places of punishment, and the more horrible they are, so long as the guards and other non-prisoners are safe, the better. The way the human garbage is to be treated is simple. It is to be warehoused somewhere out of sight and out of mind away from the typical suburban American and his family. This warehousing is to be done for the minimum possible dollar cost. The fact that nonviolent people are brutalized and destroyed for life in prisons is met with a shrug, or a “f*ck ’em”.
Proof of this is scarcely needed. The prison rape statistics have been well-known to the American public for as long as I can remember. This well-known and ongoing atrocity is treated as a joke. It is not that no one cares, it is that nothing is too harsh for criminals, so it is their problem and even accepted as part of the price of imprisonment.
This attitude is not going to change. It is deeply-rooted. Jacksonian Americans place little value on the lives of people who are not part of the folk community, and zero value on the lives of its enemies.
The absolute and even brutal distinction drawn between the members of the community and outsiders has had massive implications in American life. Throughout most of American history the Jacksonian community was one from which many Americans were automatically and absolutely excluded: Indians, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans, obvious sexual deviants and recent immigrants of non-Protestant heritage have all felt the sting.
While race and religion are not the barriers they once were to inclusion in the folk community, there is still a certain code of conduct which is demanded. “Those who violate or reject the code—criminals, irresponsible parents, drug addicts—have not benefited from the softening of the Jacksonian color line.” The effect of political correctness, which disapproves of such views, merely means they are not spoken aloud in places where they will be disapproved of. But such attitudes have not gone away. Prisoners are in the worst position, since by their actions and consequent status as prisoners they have voluntarily repudiated their membership in the folk community.
The only way that the typical suburban American voter will change his views is if his own safety and advantage is made the focus of any reform effort. He needs to be told the plain truth that his safety is diminished by our current practices. He needs to be told that his family is in greater danger if prisoners are not provided with some opportunity to get out of prison and function in society. He needs to be told that he is paying a lot of money for something that does not work. He needs to be told that none of this is about being soft on crime or making prison anything other than hard, harsh punishment.
The problem with would-be prison reformers is that they are typically motivated by compassion, and think that more than a tiny minority of other people will ever respond to an appeal couched in these terms. They are wasting their time appealing to the pity or kindness of the American voter. When it comes to convicts, there is not going to be any pity or kindness from a large majority.
Appeal to the American voter’s self-interest. Appeal to his safety and his family’s safety. Appeal to his wallet, to his practicality about what “works” and what does not.
Only a discussion on that basis will help us mitigate the hideous moral and practical mess we have created with our current prison system.
(Update: Jonathan reminds me of this article about successful prison reform in New York.)