Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Behind Bars

This is the old county jail in Leland, Michigan, preserved as a monument to history. The evening I was taking these pictures, a man and woman strolled up next to me, and the man told me that he and his friends had often spent nights in an empty cell as teenagers, just for fun, back when his grandfather was in charge and his grandmother cooked meals for the inmates. The past couple of days, reading a book I have mentioned once already in a previous post and will discuss further below, I remembered these images from earlier in August and thought what a contrast the old brick jail provides to the new, high-tech, high-security county facility. Modern times have reached Leelanau County. I should say before going further that I have not visited the new jail and know nothing about living conditions there or programs offered. I only know that, in general, jails have come to be seen as a “growth industry” in struggling economies. Full jails provide jobs. “Follow the money.” But what of life inside jails and prisons, behind those many locked doors? What goes on there? And what happens when prisoners are released back into society? The cost of incarceration, as conducted in our country in recent years, is enormous, and money is only the beginning of the cost. If I were teaching Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas again this year, one title on my required reading list would be Dreams From the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice To All.

Sunny Schwartz was a young girl on the south side of Chicago at the time of the Richard Speck murders. Speck was, she writes, the first true monster she remembers. She rode her bike to 100th Street and arrived just as a gurney with one of the murdered nurses’ bodies was being brought out. Then fear struck, as she realized the killer could be in the crowd on the sidewalk.
For me, for my neighborhood, for Chicago, there was a before the Richard Speck murders, and an after. A shift happened at that moment in our behavior, in the way we saw the world. On my street, we locked our doors for the first time. We feared strangers. We were suspicious of our neighbors.

Many individuals stand out from the crowd in this book. There is Martin, her first inmate client when she enters the San Francisco jail as a law intern. Martin, the child molester who disgusted her because he showed no remorse. She made him read a book on rape and write a book report before she would agree to work with him. There is Tanya, hardest-shelled of women in the SISTERS drug recovery project. “I don’t like sitting in a group and talking about my problems,” Tanya complains until someone else’s story gets through to her. There is Marcum, an ally for reform, and there is Jean O’Hara, “the frail, white-haired grandma from Pleasanton,” whose daughter and grandson were murdered by a stranger but who finds the strength and courage within herself to tell her story to prisoners, to reach out and take their hands, to treat them like human beings capable of change. Schwartz writes about herself, too, but even when she does, we are seeing others through her eyes. And always, from the beginning, she is trying to understand.

There is a popular view often expressed--that by committing a crime, the perpetrator has forfeited all claims on society and stripped himself of his humanity. So, are prisons unsafe? Do prisoners rape, beat, even kill each other? Why should society care? Why should those who have so flagrantly disrespected society and other citizens be treated with respect? An eye for an eye and then some! So goes the spiel. You’ve probably heard it, too.

But let’s get back to money, just for a moment. When presented with a description of a safer, more humane prison system that is also more cost-effective, some Americans feel the more humane system is not punitive enough. In other words, looking at retribution, rehabilitation and public safety as reasons for incarceration, they are willing to jettison cost savings, rehabilitation and public safety in favor of retribution. I have heard these extreme punitive views expressed in my community college ethics classes, and here is a passage from Dreams From the Monster Factory that reminded me of those students:
Most people, I think, believe that prison or jail should be a horrible experience. People don’t think of it as a deterrent so much as just deserts. “They” hurt “us,” therefore “we” should hurt “them.” For years politicians have won elections by promising to take away cable television and weight rooms and anything seen to make prison cushy. We have a culture where jokes about prison rape are made out in the open. The prevailing wisdom is that prisoners deserve to be treated like animals; they should fear prison and suffer while they are there. Anyone who has spent time working with prisoners knows this has largely come to pass. What most people don’t realize is the consequences of making prisons a living nightmare. Most of the inmates I’d worked with ... felt punished, but not many of them took responsibility for their crimes or felt any remorse. ... In fact, everything about the system of prosecution and defense is set up so that criminals get into a habit of denying their responsibility. Every step of the way between the arrest and the trial, people accused of crimes deny everything, or keep silent. It’s what their defense attorneys tell them to do. After their trial, if they’re convicted, many don’t change their mind-set. ... So criminals someone or something else.... They are usually full of rage when they are released, and less prepared to function as citizens, the predictable products of the monster factory.

Given the hard, undeniable facts of dysfunctional families, abusive backgrounds and continuing temptations to use and sell drugs and commit crimes, what can be done to encourage prisoners to turn their lives around and become well-adjusted, productive citizens? Victimized families need healing. Society needs protecting. And taxpayers need their taxes to go toward programs that will make society safe and encourage its citizens to be productive rather than disruptive.
Five years I’ve been at it, toiling away in my small corner, fighting and fighting and fighting, trying to get the money for my programs, trying to give the prisoners a chance to become better people. “Why do you want to help those people?” And my answer was always the same: I didn’t want to help those people, or at least, not just those people. I wanted our community to be safer, I wanted to banish fear and violence, and the only way to do that, it seemed to me, was to work with the people causing the fear and violence, to try to get them to do something different.

As a romantic pragmatist, I am always drawn to the possibility of redemption, and I am impressed by Schwartz’s emphasis on redemption that goes beyond individual offenders. The aim of RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Project), Manalive, and other restorative justice programs is nothing less than the redemption of a broken society. But the impetus for nation-wide change will only come if the general public can be brought to see that everyone wins when prisoners turn their lives around. I’m hoping this book will be a step for many. Read it, talk about it, pass it along.


Gerry said...

I would like to introduce you to my friend Wanda Joseph, whose mediation practice (Creative Conflict Resolution) includes work in restorative justice. The mediation community is working to untangle the crime and retribution knot early--when juveniles come into the system and before they end up in prison.

I do believe there are truly evil people in the world, and I think they should be shut up to protect the rest of us, but that is a far cry from wishing to punish.

One of the things that troubles me is how often we incarcerate people who, it turns out, did not commit the crime. Another is how often we make excuses for the criminal behavior of People Like Us while demanding retribution for People Not Like Us. Human nature can be brutish all the way around, but we can do better.

Which brings me back to Wanda, who is deeply committed to redemption for all of us.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for that link, Gerry. I looked at Wanda's site. I'm all for it! Law is great--wouldn't want to live without it--but almost exclusively adversarial proceedings so often benefit only the hardest-shelled lawyers and heal no one. Reform, rehabilitate, restore: all those re- concepts get my vote.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your wonderfully thought-provoking posts on this important subject!

P. J. Grath said...

Maiya, DREAMS FROM THE MONSTER FACTORY might be a book for your group to consider for the one meeting a year your husbands join you for discussion. What I love about this book is the vision for positive change. It's so easy to sit around and play "Ain't It Awful?" about so many issues, and there are plenty of books on economics, politics, prison, etc. that are simply horror story anthologies. What can we fo? What will work? Can we change the world? Yes, we can, one step at a time, I do believe.