Outside Looking In: Introduction

3 05 2011

prison
n.
1. A place for the confinement of persons in lawful detention, especially persons convicted of crimes.
2. A place or condition of confinement or forcible restraint.
3. A state of imprisonment or captivity.
tr.v. pris·oned, pris·on·ing, pris·ons
To confine in or as if in a prison; imprison. (Cite)

A few weeks ago I heard the story of three hikers who were incarcerated in Tehran, Iran awaiting trial for espionage. One of the three (Sarah Shourd) has since been released on bail but is expected by the Iranian government to return to stand trial. As lawyers might say, the radio program aired her version of the truth, and in my efforts at sorting fact from fiction I noted that there is no shortage of opinion pro and con as to the innocence of the hikers and the purity of their motives for being so close to the Iranian border. This article, and this series, does not directly concern the hikers. The story told by Sarah Shourd did establish a strange empathetic bond with her and her friends still in Iran. These are people I do not know personally, and do not expect to ever meet. But as I meditated on this new bond, I studied the idea of prison: Why do we have prisons? Who is incarcerated there? Do prisons have a positive impact on society? Is being in prison inherently negative, or can positive strides be attained through such a system?

I do not have any delusions of changing or eliminating the prison system either here or abroad with this series, but as this site is allocated for me to empty the contents of my mind for examination, I now choose to explore some aspects of the US prison system.

I will begin with a personal anecdote:

As a small child, my family (at the time, just my father, mother, and myself) lived in West Allis, Wisconsin for a few years. I don’t recall much about the time anymore, but one thing that did jump out was my parents’ admonishment that all crimes – any crimes – meant jail time. Period.

Through the lens of young parenthood, I suppose my parents did as many do today and simplified a complex issue to the level that a six year-old might understand. As one ages, it is expected (to some extent) that the gross simplification will evolve, and one day the complexity will be re-established for the adult to ponder over. Or not… politics being what it is these days attests to the power of gross simplification.

Nevertheless, and I don’t recall the exact details of the crime, but as a child I stole a toy from a neighbor. I wasn’t into stealing per se, but as I recall I coveted all of the kid’s Neat Stuff and I wanted a small piece of it for myself. I put the toy in my pocket and evaded detection all through the day.

However, at night, our closed wall of curtains lit up with police lights. We lived in an upstairs apartment so the police were going to have stairs to climb before their inevitable incursion into our apartment. I was numb with fright. My parents couldn’t understand why I was so scared to see police lights, and even then I wasn’t about to confess to my unforgivable sin of petty theft lest there be some way out by keeping silent. Despite my dim memory of this time, what does remain very strongly was the moment when I concluded that at 6 or 7 years old I was going to be put in jail, and what ever promise my fledgling voyage into life on Planet Earth might have once held was now going to be replaced with years in a room with barred windows and doors.

As it turns out, the police were around for an entirely different reason and I don’t think they even came to our building.

My anecdote may seem silly and trivial, but on a purely empathetic level, does not the convicted criminal of any stripe in some way grapple with the idea of a life behind bars? Some don’t, of course. In my research of various inmates I have seen talk of “no remorse” and “career criminal”. Prison was not a deterrent for such people at the time of their alleged misdeeds, but it is their reality now.

Question: Why do we use incarceration (imprisonment) as a form of punishment for criminal acts?

  • We can’t just have criminals running around loose. We need to make sure they are off the street and not committing more crimes.
  • We need a deterrent for criminal activity. The prison environment is designed to make the life of the law-abiding citizen more attractive by comparison.
  • No suitable alternative exists. (UK article, for example)

Some thoughts:

  • On some level, I agree. When someone commits a particularly horrific crime, such as a serial killer, we indeed do not want this person roaming the streets at will. Note that at no time did I mention the death penalty as this series of articles is focused specifically on prison. Alive or dead, I respect the logic that dangerous criminals must be removed from society. But will we, and must we, lock up every single person who commits a criminal act? If so, to what end?
  • As with many such deterrents, the threat of jail is not guaranteed to dissuade or prevent anyone from committing a criminal act. It is worthwhile to note that what was once deemed “criminal” may now be deemed “noble”, such as civil rights demonstrators being jailed in such places as Alabama and Mississippi.
  • I suppose this is the crux of the problem of criminal activity and how it might be prevented. No alternatives, really? In the cited Telegraph article, the author claims that options like probation or heavy fines do not reduce the threat of future crimes. Does the threat of jail time do this?

Another aspect of the US prison system that I wish to explore is the spectre of the so-called “Prison Industrial Complex”. If I understand this term correctly, and admittedly my research is far from satisfying in this regard, it is being argued that the US prison system is being leveraged for economic gain by somebody: Jobs for prison guards and staff, contracts for various vendors, and cheap labor supplied in the form of inmates with nothing better to do who can be paid something around 95 cents an hour.

As a spectre, this is certainly a sobering thought. What if the US criminal justice system is indeed a vehicle to “in-shore” jobs for the same labor costs as a developing nation, without the overseas shipping, and related overhead?

Alternately, what would we have the incarcerated do, if not work in some fashion as part of a larger strategy to establish a work ethic (and skills, for some) that will one day serve freed inmates well as they return to civil society?

Finally, what of the inmates themselves?

I think that US society at large, of which I am a part, views the convicted criminal much in the same way as we would, say, a used candy wrapper. Into the trash it goes, with nary a second thought. If the chief concern of waste management is the size and availability of landfills, and how long it takes for the waste to decompose, driving the need to dig more landfills, perhaps it may be rightly argued that the chief concern of the US justice system is the size and availability of prisons, and how long it takes for them to become full, driving the need to build more prisons.

As to the nature of waste generation, let alone management, is it not incumbent upon us to ask why we are generating the waste that drove the need for landfills to house it?

I argue, then, in the form of this series of articles that we must also ask why criminals became so, driving the need for prisons to house them.

Civil comments are welcome and encouraged as this series proceeds.

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