Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ignoring the problem won't make it go away

Let's build more prisons and fill 'em up with our society's undesirables. That ought to make the world a better place, don't you think?

No? You don't think that's the key to happiness and security and sunshine?

You're right. There are some folks on the other side of the pond that feel the same way. One of them is Will Self, and in this piece for the BBC he notes that prisons aren't very good at either rehabilitation or punishment. And, being that those are the twin goals of the penal system, that doesn't speak very well to efficacy of locking people up because they've done something society doesn't like.
It was Dostoevsky who said: "The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." But in contemporary Britain you don't even need to do this, you can simply stand on a street corner and wait for the ghosts to come flitting past in order to appreciate its parlous condition.
As the rate of violent crimes has decreased in this country, the rate of people sent to prison for drug crimes, and other nonviolent offenses, has increased. I once represented a man who had previously been sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary for being in possession of a couple of rocks of crack cocaine. I have yet to hear anyone who can give me a logical explanation for why it makes sense for us to spend our money to house a drug addict in prison when he would be better off in a treatment program.

And it's not like his "jail therapy" worked as he was arrested again (for possessing three rocks) shortly after being paroled. If anyone can tell me why that makes sense, I'm all ears.

When you lock someone away in prison you're not going to rehabilitate him - particularly in this day when the governor and his henchmen are looking for any piece of low-hanging fruit they can find to cut from the budget. And if they're willing to sit by and watch as school districts lay off teachers or leave classroom positions open, what the hell do you think they'll do to funding for rehabilitation programs for inmates?

I mean, the fair-haired one has to have some money to pay the DPS to provide security for him while he tours the country watching his ill-fated presidential campaign slowly go down the toilet. And what about his wife and kids? You don't seriously expect them to go on vacation without a phalanx of state troopers, do you?
Of course, we aren't quite at the levels enjoyed by our closest allies, those prime exponents of the civilising mission the United States, whose extensive gulag now houses, it is estimated, more African American men than were enslaved immediately prior to their Civil War - but we're getting there.
Just let that one stew for a bit.

Sure, there are some folks who need to be locked up because they are unredeemable or because they have committed crimes of such a heinous nature. More and more we are seeing people sent to prison, not because they have committed some heinous crime but, instead, because they have committed enough minor crimes that the state no longer wants to deal with them. When a theft of less than $100 can be enhanced to a felony and the person sent to prison for two years of more - well, the system's not working. 

Contrary to the view of prison as a deterrent and a way of keeping criminals off the streets, almost all enlightened opinion now concurs in the following.
Not only does prison, for the vast majority of those who endure it, not work, either as punishment or as rehabilitation, but there is no escaping the conclusion that it functions as a stimulant to crime, rather than its bromide.

No one's going to argue that it isn't easier just to lock folks away and forget about them. We do that everyday with bills or phone messages we don't want to return. But we're talking about people's lives here. We talking about their lives and the lives of their families. It/s time to re-examine the way we do things in our criminal (in)justice system. It's time we start asking questions. It's time we start asking Why?

We can either fix it or we can sit and watch it collapse under its own weight.

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