Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Punitive Prisons: Why?

“Hate” is a strong word and I try not to use it indiscriminately, but if there's one thing I hate about the U.S., it's our prison system.

I realized at a young age that I was in the rehabilitation camp, rather than the retribution camp. But since those years in the 1970s, we've veered sharply toward retribution.

Chris Hayes's book A Colony in a Nation filled me in on a couple of historical reasons why that is. America, he says, is a wrathful land. We like to humiliate wrongdoers. Why is Europe different, though?

Part of what sets Europe apart…is the degree to which its criminal justice system operates free from democratic input. The United States is more or less the only advanced democracy that its prosecutors…. [This] strikes most European jurists as sheer madness.
But there’s a philosophical difference, too…. [there is a] strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.
In the German and French systems…punishment long existed along two separate tracks: degradation and humiliation for low-status prisoners and relative comfort and hospitality for high-status ones. The United States, on the other hand, maintained a more egalitarian ethos of punishment (for white people, anyway)…. Thus the system of punishment that developed found equality in a race to the bottom: everyone got punished harshly as an expression of a core belief that no man stands above another.
In Europe, as it democratized over time, the move was to push everyone into the category once reserved for the nobles: the sphere of humane treatment was widened until it included everyone.
….part of what made [this] possible on the continent was a solidarity that flourished in postwar Europe, binding societies with a shared ethnicity and language. The person you may feel an impulse to degrade is your fellow Frenchman, after all.
In the United States, the bulk of the populace cleaves apart perpetrators and victims, attributing criminals to one racial group and victims to another. The statistics don’t bear out this division… but this is not the way crime is communicated publicly (pp. 182–185).
As a result of this historical difference (not to mention American white supremacy, which Hayes talks about extensively in the book as well), Northern European prisons are much more humane places, as shown in Michael Moore’s film Where to Invade Next.

The July-August issue of Mother Jones has a story that ties into this. Called "Prison Break," it details efforts in North Dakota to make their prisons more like the ones in Norway. They’re moving toward ending solitary confinement, and instead of shipping prisoners out of state, have added a new minimum-security facility modeled on the “man camps” that populate the Bakken oil-fracking area.

The camp houses men who will soon be out of prison (whether because the committed a minor crime or are nearing the end of a long sentence), so its warden devises ways for the prisoners to earn more freedoms, including work-release.

“Everybody down here is going to be out of here in a short amount of time. So how do you want ’em?” This is the crux of Norway’s approach: Once you accept that these people will one day be your neighbors, you might feel more invested in making sure they have the sills to get by on the outside.
Positive reinforcement, including work release and furloughs, are part of humane prisons, which reminds me of another fact I learned from Hayes’s book. Remember Willy Horton, the Massachusetts prisoner who committed a murder during a furlough while Michael Dukakis was governor? Which basically elected George H.W. Bush president of the United States, right?

Well, Horton was just one of tens of thousands of people who were furloughed. He was an edge case that was used to corrupt overall policy (as we have seen all too often).

In fact, during the 1980s every single U.S. state had some kind of furlough program. California ran a furlough program, which had also been in operation years earlier under Governor Ronald Reagan. After a prisoner on furlough committed murder, Reagan defended the program, saying, “More than 20,000 already have these passes, and this was the only case of this kind, the only murder.” Reagan even bragged about California “leading the nation in rehabilitation…obviously you can’t be perfect” (p. 186).
The changes in North Dakota's prisons have decreased the number of inmates in solitary confinement by two-thirds. No more solitary because you won’t tuck in your shirt or you mouth off to a guard. Only endangering another person can land you in there, and the terms are short, with clear guidelines on how to get out. And there’s a supportive place immediately afterward so the men have time to adjust before reentering the general population.

Since these changes were put into place, there have been sharp declines in violence between inmates and toward staff, and by staff toward inmates.

Hayes ends his book with a chapter on what our justice system and treatment of law-breakers should look like. Rather than making sure white people get just as bad sentences as black people, that Brock Turner serves a life sentence for rape because a black man would be sentenced that way,

What if we were to agree human beings are not defined by the worst thing they ever did? Yes, there are incorrigibles and sociopaths…. But there are far, far fewer of them than are currently crammed twelve to a room in our prisons (pp. 208-209).

Other quotes from A Colony in a Nation:

Ultimately, the gun is the backstop that prevents the entire social order from being upended [in the first several hundred years of American history]. Had it not been for the superior firepower of fearful whites, who knows what would have transpired in American history? You can understand why, in such a situation, certain kinds of white southerners would cling to their guns (p. 88).
If the people are armed enough to threaten the state’s control, then the state’s monopoly on violence is in question, and it therefore often acts less like it’s enforcing the law than putting down an insurrection (p. 104). [Which led to SWAT teams, the warrior worldview, etc.]
Despite the fact nonwhite people are disproportionately the victims of crime, the criminal justice system as a whole is disproportionately built on the emotional foundation of white fear. But then, that isn’t surprising. American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate (p. 109).
Getting rid of the “ghetto” as an institution would require a full, multigenerational commitment to making racial equality a genuine, lived economic reality in America. That was a social project for which, frankly, white voters had (and continue to have) little appetite (p. 159).
In rural economies from upstate New York to downstate Illinois and across the land, in places where all the other employers have left, prisons have become a central source of employment and economic stimulus. On the West Texas plains, in the Mississippi Delta, and in the coalfields of southern Appalachia, the endless stream of prisoners sent to them from the Colony provides livelihoods [and extra voting power, I would add] for the locals. Without them, there would be no work (p. 214).

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