Monday, October 10, 2005

Torture Within the American Prison System

This is not an Abu Ghraib style exposure story of torture within American state and federal prisons, so don’t look for the jolt of unexpected disclosure.  There’s no doubt plenty of bad things going on, but those are a journalist’s job to uncover and I’m not a journalist.


PrisonerhandsOn the other hand, one of my personal definitions of ‘torture’ is “giving a man nothing to do and then making sure he does it.”  Or her.  To a very large degree, we have institutionalized that disgraceful behavior within our state and federal prison systems.  Fortunately, we have fifty entirely separate and distinct prison authorities in the fifty entirely separate and distinct states of our Union and that’s a cause for hope.  Hopeful because we might see some experimentation.


There are some good things going on in various pilot programs, but they are in woefully short supply and without much public support.  Yet prison systems in the way they are most often operated are wasteful of public resources (money), ineffective in any real and meaningful rehabilitation as well as unmindful of the damage we do to our own society when we warehouse criminals.


I grew up among those who complained that prison was not often enough a deterrent and certainly not straightforward in the application of sentences.  Life in prison more often meant fifteen or twenty years.  There seemed no coherent relationship between the terms handed out by judges or juries and actual time served.  We have moved to fix that shortcoming in recent years, moved to fix it with a vengeance. 


Three-strike laws, tougher (some would say rigid) sentencing guidelines, political pressure on governors, legislatures and parole boards have increasingly moved life sentences toward imprisonments that are actually served for a lifetime.  The anomalies are heartbreaking, as some three-strikers are put away for a life within prison walls for such minor crimes as shoplifting or driving under the influence.


That is not my argument, although it’s a good one.  My argument is for less wasteful (cheaper) prison systems that are capable of turning warehoused lives into lives of purpose, allowing society to punish wrongdoers with what might popularly be called Christian charity.  No matter that I personally choke a bit on that terminology, believing that charity is not the sole (or soul) purview of Christians.


I have written before on using the military model for prisons.  That approach is clouded by recent accusations of military malfeasance and shouldn’t be, because I’m not talking about military prisons, but the military in general. 


BootcampBeginning, of course, with that formerly common American draftee experience called Boot Camp.  A minority of my readers will have had that experience these days, but I have had it and it was unique.  The military does a number of things extremely well, including


  • Taking the rough-edged and uneducated, forging them into a cooperative force

  • Teaching compliance, respect and a sense of honor

  • Building self esteem

  • Educating, from basic instruction to advanced learning

In the process of turning a widely variant cross-section of American manhood (and womanhood) into structurally secure members of an interdependent force (a pretty good definition of a modern army), the military necessarily creates a complete society within society. What's missing from prisons is anything remotely resembling society.  And yet we pay lip service to returning the already unsocial (after their terms expire) to society.


No wonder that model doesn't work.  Yet what better example of motivating disparate individuals into a social entity is there than the Army?  In practice, many young men have been given the choice between prison and the Army for a good many years.  For the most part this model has worked.


As a military base has all functions within it, including mess halls, theatres, laundries, shopping, housing, garbage pickup, recreational facilities, even light manufacturing and extensive maintenance facilities; so might a prison system.  As the military thrives on a scheme of reward and punishment, so might a prison.  As the military builds self-confidence, obedience and respect, so might a prison. 


It might even be a voluntary choice within a prison to join this larger and more responsible entity rather than moulder away one’s days and nights in the debilitating mindlessness of nothing to do.  The comparison would be there to observe first-hand, the choice more and more compelling.  No drugs, no shivs, no gang related clustering of authority, no year after year after year of dead-ended sameness.


A chance.  To live out one’s life in usefulness, if life is the sentence.  To look forward to parole with self esteem and a marketable trade, if parole is the goal. 


Now there is a societal model I would love to see unite born-again Christians, the mainstream religions, faith-based organizations (however they are defined) and various secular social establishments. Too altruistic?  I think not and hope not, but there exists an enormous opportunity to turn loss into profit, economically as well as individualy . . . prison by prison as well as life by life.
_____________________________________________


See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.