Archive for the 'prisons' Category

Punishment does not undo damage

January 20, 2014

Maybe I should have written a reply to a reply one of my NYTimes comments received.

Richard Luettgen wrote about “dreadful consequences” that “cannot simply be expunged.”  I was talking about limiting punishment, especially of juveniles, and not having an adjudication dog them for the rest of their lives with negative consequences — limit the punishment to the actual terms of the sentence.

I don’t think any incarceration expunges the consequences of criminal behavior.  The movie is not run backwards, and then replayed with different action, on account of a participant’s punishment.    The impacts are still there.  But that — how to address the negative impacts — I think is a separate issue.  If we incarcerate people until dreadful consequences have been expunged, I don’t see on what basis anyone would ever be let out.


No comments

April 13, 2013

I had a comment to post in reaction to a NYTimes editorial, only to discover that it does not seem to have a comment section.  I don’t think my contribution is of enough general interest that it makes sense to submit it as a letter, or sufficiently developed to submit it as some other form of communication to the Grey Lady, so I’m putting it here.

It’s in response to a piece about halfway houses in Pennsylvania and a move to make them more accountable by tying future fees to successful outcomes as measured by lack of recidivism.

It’s my hazy understanding that not all inmates are even eligible for transitional programs in all states, that laws such as those imposing minimum mandatory sentences may also deny people sentenced under them access to programs.  If this is true, then that’s also a place in the system that needs reform.  Helping such inmates should not be viewed as a benefit just to them but as a benefit to the society they will reenter.


November 29, 2012

I think I’d better admit up front that I just like the word.  As I remember it, it refers to those guys who read the entrails of the animals in ancient Rome or Etruria in order to divine the will of the universe, in the way I might put it.  I didn’t much feel like one when I was cooking my turkey giblets a week ago.  But there were echoes of something yesterday as I viewed and discussed swirling flocks of geese above our heads with a priest at a prison yesterday (after pausing in my car to let a rabbi cross from the prison property to the parking lot).  The word for that sort of interpreter I think is augurs — not as wonderful a mouthful of syllables.

I had noticed one flock overhead while I was parking my car.  By the time I got out of my car, that flock seemed to be headed in the opposite direction.  When I came upon the priest as I crossed the lot, there were even more geese circling overhead above us, and the priest excitedly and happily volunteered to me that they seemed to be rounding themselves up into a larger group and massing for flight together elsewhere.  My reaction was to feel grateful he was able to see a pattern where I couldn’t.  He saw this rally coming together like almost the maneuvers of a marching band at halftime at a college football game (my words and image to communicate what he said in pieces and through pointing).  My own sense was of infiltrators leaving voluntarily.

What do I make of this?  Probably an illustration of how what we perceive is filtered through our own human crud.  I think in this case, my crud was probably worse and more negative than my interlocutor’s.  The priest was awestruck, as was I, but saw a positive movement.  I was awestruck but saw the phenomenon through the lens of feeling tired and more overwhelmed by others than I prefer.

If I really want to apply the haruspices idea, I’d make the point of noticing that one of the turkey giblets last week went from seeming like a large whole to splitting open into two connected parts after it was cooked; maybe that image was in the back of my mind when I wrote about the source tearing open and forming the universe.

In any event, I really enjoyed the priest’s explanation and his sharing his obvious excitement and joy in the event.

Intimate things

September 20, 2012

I’m thinking about religious beliefs and wedding rings.

Some people have wondered why some Muslims feel so provoked by things like the video and cartoons recently in the news.  It has struck me as having to do with intimacy, with how close to one’s heart and personal identity a relationship or thing is held.

For some, their sense of self is bound up with their beliefs about God and their relationship to God.

I’m thinking that a way to understand this in the west is with wedding rings.  There are places into which one may not wear jewelry, places like surgical operating rooms and rooms for contact visits with people in prison.  But in both cases there is (often?) an exception for wedding bands.  For surgery the ring is taped, I believe, to guard against the importation of infection.  For prison visits, religious necklaces can be an exception, too.

For someone never married or religious, these exceptions can seem strange and a little arbitrary, but I think they reflect a cultural understanding of how closely we hold our marriages to our sense of self — the relationship becomes part of who we are.

I suspect that’s the degree of intimacy with some religions, especially those whose adherents are actively involved with them throughout any given day.  I suspect that that’s why it’s harder for such people not to take personally perceived insults to their religion.

“Did he do it?”

August 12, 2012

For, I think, the first time, I got this as a reaction to disclosing that I have a relative in prison to someone.  It was my neighbor, she’s from Russia, and she said that her relative had been imprisoned in Russia for eight years for nothing he did.  It was such a change and relief from the nosiness, judgmentalness, and gossipy questions I usually get.  And this relative of mine certainly has been framed before — cases that fell apart in court.  I don’t actually know where the current truth lies, there were plea deals, and I try to have a relationship that steers clear of all that stuff.  It interested me that it took someone from halfway around the world to bring that understanding home to me.

Hungry inmates

June 7, 2012

I read and replied to a comment to Charles Blow’s piece about the issue of race in the electorate today in which (in the comment, that is) it was said that prisons supply a safety net of food and shelter.  Actually, the comment specifically claimed that prison’s are a place “where there’s enough to eat” (the comment was posted by KOB of TH on June 7 at 9:12 a.m.).  I replied that many prisoners will tell you there’s not enough to eat.

In fact, at a local county jail in my area, the inmates get supper at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, or so, and have to wait til the next morning for their next meal.  They rely on buying food through the jail canteen to tide them over and they have figured out a way to cook in plastic bags (things like rice and beans, if I remember correctly, with melted cheese) and to provide food for new inmates who don’t yet have canteen money.

Many inmates have alcohol and substance issues, and it has struck me as misguided in terms of desiring inmates’ recovery and discouraging their recidivism to pressure their families and friends on the outside into providing them with money for food — it fosters the very type of enabling relationship that is unhelpful to addict and family member or friend.  Whatever these family and friends think about why their “loved one” (I think that’s the current parlance) is incarcerated, most don’t think going hungry is an acceptable part of incarceration.  It’s a short-sighted and unhelpful system.

There are many things we can’t solve, but we should not confuse them with our own contributions to those situations, including those of us who set policy, implement it, and report on it using the usual set of unexamined assumptions of who is to blame and who is irreproachable.


April 23, 2012

I am no longer sure whether it is in fact the case that there are fourteen words for “snow” in an Eskimo language, but the concept still remains even if the original story wasn’t accurate: if we want to talk about nuance, we need a vocabulary to reflect that.

I was thinking about that after reading Michael Gerson’s column in The Washington Post today about his mentor Charles Colson and Colson’s faith.  The lines that caught my attention were, “This inversion of social priorities [referencing Colson’s work with and attitude towards prison inmates] — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson. ”

This got me thinking about what different people mean when they talk about faith.  A deeply received faith I have no doubt manifests as it did in Charles Colson.  But I’m wondering how to think about people who say they have faith, or seem to have faith, but aren’t able to find the sweet spot in a convict, for example — the people who may have a less complete relationship with faith.

This is what brings me to my vocabulary issue.  I am not sure myself exactly how to talk about this, but I’m pretty sure there’s an issue here.  I’ve met people who have faith but seem to limit its arena to their families.  I’ve met people who have some amount of serenity in their lives but very little thinking about big questions about Life or their lives.  I’ve met people who have versions of the perceptions people with faith may have, like being an empty vessel for God’s will, but have them in a less healthy form — a negative feeling of being “nothing,” for example.  I experience myself as having some amount of understanding of big questions and an ability to find the sweet spot in most people, but not a whole lot of serenity.  Some religious figures (Moses, Jesus, for examples) in the past who clearly had great spiritual gifts also had more anger, for example, than I would have thought an “enlightened” human being would have.

Clearly, enlightenment is not synonymous with faith.  But that’s just my point.  Discussions in the public square, at least that I come across, don’t make many, if any, distinctions between different aspects of a spiritual life, and my impression is that we can have some aspects without having others (yet).  I suspect faith gets a dubious reputation, when it does, from people whose faith is a work in progress, who haven’t experienced (yet) the deepest penetration of those mysterious forces into their hearts, whose faith comes across to others as a “crutch, opiate or self-help program.”  I guess I am trying to understand what those people have and don’t have.

My fallback concept is that we stand in a shower of a force or energy stream, and depending on our interior preparation, we experience that stream in different ways.  The Charles Colsons with broken pride and heart receive it more deeply perhaps, without so much self-protection interfering.  People who have been able to maintain their attachments and not experienced what they may have feared most, for example, may still have ego issues blocking or getting tangled up in the stream.

My main point isn’t my theory of faith, it’s my wish that we discuss faith with a more developed vocabulary and more nuanced conceptualizations.  I think it’s probably more complicated than, “Either you have it or you don’t.”  I think we obscure the continuum that’s probably there.  Surely the deep, thoroughgoing faith of a Charles Colson is a beautiful thing, and I for one appreciate that kind of bedrock faith, but I’m concerned that we need to not separate such outliers from the rest of us, lest that make it less likely that most of us make progress in our own lives.

Feedback loops

October 19, 2011

It seems to me that a lot of prescriptive advice on correcting social ills assumes that all people have adequately working feedback loops — I think it derives from a behavioralist model, that negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement deployed in some manner will shape behavior into the desired result.

My impression is that there are conditions, including some that people seem to bring in with them to this world at birth, that distort or even prevent entirely from working the reception of the feedback in its intended way.  Depression looms large to me as one of those.  Continued insistence on the usual behavioral models of punishment and reward with depressed people starts looking to me like trying to punish a puppy for something it did too long ago to remember — it becomes an exercise in frustration and damages the recipient and does not produce the desired result — dog-rearing guides, I think, counsel against trying to address an action that took place too long ago, counsel immediate response instead.  When depressed people are unable to meet expectations, I think the depression has to be addressed for the attempts at feedback not to have unhelpful consequences both to the person and to the group.  And addressing depression is often not an easy thing to do.  But I suspect that people who don’t see how depression is a pervasive state of mind may not see that need — that’s certainly my impression from being exposed to educational psychology, for example.  The statistics on the presence of mental illness among inmates in prisons suggests that this attitude comes with high costs.