Sunday, April 20, 2008

"All punishment is mischief"

Certainly on of the most remarkable religious figures of our times is Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known to her devotees (and those who struggle with long Indian names) as Amma-ji. She is also known to many by her description as the hugging saint. Amma-ji's organization is known around the world for its humanitarian work in the fields of education, housing for the poor, agricultural service and just about every other area in which there are people are in need of kindness and help. One of the many projects undertaken by her organization is called Circle of Love Inside, which puts prisoners in touch with volunteers who are willing to correspond with them regularly.

Earlier this year I received a letter from a prisoner with whom I have been corresponding. He had not written for a while and apologized for the pause. The prison in which he is serving a life sentence was undergoing a lockdown, as a result of which all inmates were confined to their cells for a month without access to the exercise facilities or the commissary. Without access to the commissary, the prisoners had no access to any food except what is served to them in their cells. My friend said something in his letter that I was unable to forget:

I cannot imagine ever hating anyone so much that I would force him eat the food they serve us in prison.

He had described the food to me in earlier letters. It sounded both unappetizing and lacking in nutritional value. Most of the prisoners with whom my wife and I correspond have described the food as barely fit for animals. Add to that the fact that prisoners are routinely subjected to insults and often appallingly insensitive comments from guards and other inmates, and that guards often look the other way when inmates are being harassed and abused by other inmates, and the picture emerges of overcrowded prisons as environments that promote very little that conduces to positive transformation.

Statistics speak volumes about the effectiveness of this way of treating prisoners. According to the Department of Justice website, 65% of the criminals convicted of violent crimes in the United States are arrested on suspicion of committing violent crimes within three years of being released from prison. About 50% of those who serve sentences for violent crimes are sentenced to more time in prison for further violent crimes. American prisons do very little to reform behavior or build character; they do a great deal to punish, demean, belittle, shame and humiliate. The days of the penitentiary (a place to do penance) seem to be gone; the culture of the dungeon, which the European enlightenment tried to banish, has come back. Americans have forgotten Jeremy Bentham's dictum: “All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil.”

A good many people in American prisons have little education. Those who long to use their time behind bars to improve themselves through education are thwarted. Classes exist in many prisons, but there are often more people waiting to get into them than actually taking them. Some schools offer on-line education, but tuition is prohibitively high. Schools that offer lower tuition for in-state residents often do not regard state prisoners as legitimate residents of the state. As prisoners seeking educational opportunities face a long road of red tape and obstacles, their frustration mounts. Eventually, many simply give up. When their sentence ends, they are sent back into the world with no more education or skills than they had went they went in, and whatever social skills they may have once had have been eroded by years of abusive treatment. Few people on the outside are inclined to forgive a person who has served time in prison. America has increasingly devolved into a “one strike and you're out” society.

The American way these days seems to be to create problems through short-sightedness and stupidity—the war in Iraq comes to mind—and then to deal with those problems with reactive, fearful, angry, hateful and vindictive measures that make the situation dramatically worse. This pattern seems to prevail in almost everything American society as a whole does nowadays. It should come as no surprise that this pattern manifests itself in the prison system. Until this changes, we can only thank God (or whomever we wish to direct our thanks) for organizations like Amma-ji's, who make time to offer comfort to prisoners.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Why are so many Americans in prison?

The next time you are aboard an airplane in the United States, think about this: the Department of Justice predicts that one out of fifteen Americans will spend time in prison sometime during their lifetimes. If you were on an airplane with 416 passengers aboard (the capacity of a Boeing 747), figure that statistically speaking about 27 of them will have spent time in prison by the time they die (that's about how many sit in the first-class cabin).

One quarter of all the prisoners in the world are imprisoned in the United States of America, which has 5% of the world's population. 737 out of every 100,000 US citizens is currently in prison, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. That's 5.3 times the incarceration rate in the United Kingdom, and 6.6 times the incarceration rate in China and 12.5 times the rate in Norway. The state of Maine, which has the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the United States (with 148 prisoners per 100,000 people), still has a higher incarceration rate than the UK.

According to the Department of Justice website, about 52% of the prisoners in the United States are serving sentences for violent crimes. 20% are there for drug offenses. 57% of prisoners in Federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes, as opposed to 21% of those in state prisons.

The Daoist philosopher Laozi (Lao-tzu) observed that the sole cause of crime is the making of laws. One way to reduce crime, therefore, is to make fewer activities illegal. Most people would probably not favor decriminalizing such activities as intentional homicide, assault and battery and rape. But aside from some activities that are clearly so disruptive to the social harmony that people who do them should probably be given an opportunity to reform their conduct, there are some activities that should probably never have been considered criminal in the first place.

Two activities that are obvious candidates for being decriminalized are drug-related offenses and coming into the country with the purpose of making a livelihood. America's immigration laws are absurdly exclusive. One way to eliminate some crime is to open the borders so that people seeking honest work are not classified as dishonest just because they seek ways to enter the country without being kept on the outside by America's ridiculously overprotective restrictions. The campaign to “secure our borders” is little but a thinly disguised xenophobia like the nativism of the 19th century that resulted in ugly populist campaigns against Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews and Asians, not to mention a trumped-up invasion of Mexico that resulted in an illegal and unnecessary war—the first of many the United States would wage.

A second way to make a dramatic reduction of the country's prison population would be to give drug addicts who seek to overcome their addictions state-funded addiction therapy. And drug addicts who have no desire to overcome their addictions should be given access to safe and legal drugs, just as tobacco and coffee addicts and alcoholics are. Making substances illegal serves only to make them prohibitively expensive, thus increasing the likelihood that the addict will commit crimes to make money to pay for artificially expensive substances. While the campaign to secure our borders is a war against poor people from neighboring countries, but not against poverty itself, the “war on drugs” is a war waged by the American government against Americans.

It is time to look for congressional representatives, senators and presidential candidates who have the imagination to seek creative and effective alternatives to the kind of thinking that has resulted in needless suffering to thousands of addicts and millions of hard-working neighbors who seek nothing more sinsiter than to make an honest livelihood in the United States.