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Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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The prison system isn’t working. We know this to be so anecdotally and statistically. Prison is not a deterrent; the environment only fortuitously facilitates rehabilitation, while among certain categories of criminals the experience in fact exacerbates criminal behaviour. In the US, the recidivism rates (upward of 60%) are alarming, especially among violent criminals. Approximately 50% of all prisoners are reconvicted within 3 years.

So what are the penologists doing about it besides writing more learned papers and approving of the spilling of more cement for more prisons? Sweet much ado about nothing that is needed to make North America a better and safer place -- both inside and out.

Signing on to the notion that we are all responsible for the air we breathe, I propose a two-pronged cure that will fall somewhere between the system as it dysfunctions now and Taliban justice, where the thief gets his hand chopped off.

Since rehabilitation is not unconnected to the appreciation of civilized behaviour (the laws) and respect for the freedom of others, the ostensible challenge of prison life is to cultivate that appreciation. So why is confinement, which is synonymous with the loss of freedom, failing to produce it? Because most prisoners have access to the same options and choices the average citizen enjoys on the outside, which means the only significant difference between the inside and outside is the size of the playing field where incarceration demonstratively does not prepare the prisoner for life on the outside -- which begs the point. The penal system, originally founded to protect society from its most dangerous individuals, in its modern incarnation resembles a structure that is close to collapse because it is constructed on a most precarious premise: that confinement, as the cause effecting rehabilitation, is synonymous with loss of freedom.

© Russ StreetWhat freedom has been denied a drug kingpin or crime boss if each can run his operation from a prison cell? If violent doers on the outside are allowed to practice their violence inside, how are they to develop an appreciation of non-violence, or respect the inviolability of others? If prisoners are allowed to partake of the amenities they enjoy in the outside world (sex, albeit homosexual, companionship, drugs, sports, communication technology and entertainment) how are they expected to cultivate a respect and appreciation for these things that haven’t been denied as a consequence of imprisonment?

What is wholly lacking in prison reform is a proper understanding of deprivation. Whether in liberty or serving time, there is nothing more effective than deprivation to cultivate an appreciation of whatever it is that has been denied or taken away. Have me sleep on a hard cold floor for a month and you can be sure my appreciation of the simplest mattress will be immeasurably enhanced.1 Deny me companionship or community for 30 consecutive days and I will be thankful for the briefest company of even my sworn enemy.

The most effective and straightforward answer to prison reform for all crimes, including white collar, is automatic, compulsory, uninterrupted solitary confinement, where the length of sentence is a variable determined by the nature of the crime and time required for rehabilitation, all of which are subject to the individual’s personal makeup and motivation. For the length of any sentence, prisoners will not be allowed to socialize with other prisoners; contact will be restricted to non-criminal role-models such as educators, therapists, trainers and medical staff.

In its present form, solitary confinement is rightfully looked upon as a form of cruel and unjust punishment, or, in academic parlance, another wrongdoing that will not produce a right. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be queasy over the concept of punishment, a word that has fallen into major disfavour among bleeding heart liberals and conservatives. Punishment, as an adjunct of education, must remain one of the cornerstones of incarceration, where the latter engages the former to maximize the odds of rehabilitation, which is always the endgame. Prison, at a very minimum, should be a ‘memorably’ unpleasant experience, and solitary, in the format that I’m proposing, will be just that: constructively enabling such that once the prisoner has earned the right to reenter society, the mere thought of returning to the kind of life that resulted in his incarceration will be a non-starter.

The Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), in 1991, constructed the IMU (Intense Management Unit), a euphemism for ‘solitary.’ Prisoners were indefinitely subjected to solitary confinement as a means of controlling them, keeping them away from gang life that is allowed to run amuck in most prisons. But in recent years, after much petitioning, the OSP adopted a system that allows prisoners to earn their way out, following specific programs in respect to therapy and education. The results have been very promising, and it is something along these lines that I am proposing. Since the prisoner would be meeting with his counsellor(s) on a regular basis, he wouldn’t be subjected to solitary as it is inhumanely practiced today.

Every responsible parent, at some point in the life of his or her child, will exhort that child not to keep company with X because he’s a bad influence. That keeping company with bad company is so self-evidently unwise, you would think our most esteemed penologists would have grasped that basic fact even prior to working in the field. The first immediate benefit of compulsory solitary confinement will be the permanent elimination of gang culture that has become the breeding ground for the very criminal activity prisons are supposed to cure. From day one, eggs turned bad will not be allowed to mix and rot with other bad eggs. Instead, in the protective bubble of solitary confinement, every prisoner will be individually evaluated with the purpose of providing for his reintroduction into society. The prisoner will have access to only those materials that address his educational needs, deemed the sine qua non in turning his life around. Progress towards rehabilitation will be relentlessly monitored and measured; positive performance incrementally rewarded; education will be comprised of acquiring both practical and social skills. In the new prison paradigm there will be more educators and counsellors and less prison guards.

In recognition of the cause and effect that link the inside with the outside, as part of every crimininal’s education, he will be systematically introduced to the notion that he wasn’t born a criminal, but that X number of consecutive negative experiences turned him into one, and that the unravelling of these experiences will equip him not with excuses but the understanding and self-esteem he needs to help himself work his way out. Since these negative experiences occurred on the outside, the system that grows and tolerates these crime spawning environments will be directly implicated in penal reform. We know there is enough money, albeit much of it off shore, to underwrite the rehabilitation of every negative environment in America, but the will repatriate the equivalent of Fort Knox is not there because the big picture has been obscured by interest groups in whose financial self-interest it is to maintain the status quo.

And in respect to those prison administrators who are incurably vulnerable to their infallibility, whose positions would be directly threatened by admission of failure, they are either collectively in denial or bureaucratically insulated from anything that runs counter to their pet behavioural theories. Quick on the draw, they conveniently assign ‘innate’ or ‘inevitable’ to behaviour patterns that are merely arbitrary, which makes them flagrantly compliant in a system that exculpates the cause and blames the result.

Is there a relationship between the 40 billion in profits realized by Exxon -- or the provision that allows the rich to deposit their profits in off-shore tax free havens -- and lack of funds to provide street kids with the training and education that would pre-empt their being sucked into a life crime? What risks are children exposed to when a mother has take on a job to help her minimum wage earning husband make ends meet? Divvy up Exxon’s 40 billion dollar profit and you can deposit a thousand dollars into the pockets of 40 million Americans -- that’s 15 percent of the population. Multiply these profits by America’s 50 wealthiest corporations and you have more than what it takes to get every single kid and criminal off the street and back into school.

When will our legislators and law makers who devise the tax codes rise to the occasion of representing Exxon’s profit for what it is: a crime against humanity? If the benefits of rehabilitating the criminal are self-evident, aren’t those same benefits self-evident as it concerns the rehabilitation of the corporation, which in its present guise operates like a wild west operation? As long as corporate America is allowed to write (rite) its own rules, the disparity between the haves and have-nots will widen, gated communities will become the rule instead of exception, more and more of our streets will be designated as danger zones and our prisons shall multiply.

There was a time, not so long ago, when our neighbour, a milkman, could afford a simple house and his wife could stay home and raise their two children. Earlier in that tumultuous century, people didn’t have to lock up their homes and cars. And now we have prisons that are bursting at the bars and failing their mandates because the powers that be refuse to acknowledge that these developments are merely symptoms of what ails society at large. If the good ideas chasing prison reform are to get beyond sounding like some think tank feasibility study, they will require advocates whose vision is equal to isolating the root causes and effects of crime and punishment, and who are sufficiently willing and strong-willed to make the giving back our lives and liberties, both inside and out, their essential task.

1. The impulse that gives rise to paganism is the need to objectify the expression of appreciation of what is dear and sacred in life.



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Your essay is unapologetic and balanced and speaks the truth.

I agree with you on several fronts: corporate capitalism/cronyism and social inequality are linked—they go hand-in-hand. And social inequality is the root of many social problems. Further, confinement is not punishment when it comes with amenities—I have friend who works in corrections in the office that fields inmates’ complaints (e.g., we should have steak more often, we need more cable TV options, etc.). I also agree that isolating people from the social conditions (and people) that encourage crime is a long-term solution (are you familiar with MTO:, but ultimately, as you suggest, the best way to reduce crime and subsequent incarceration is to give people a reason not to commit crime in the first place.

With all that said, the criminologists and penologists I know think that confinement (especially solitary confinement) is punishment enough. They offer few paths toward reform, instead documenting the extent of mass incarceration’s influence. And US citizens support increasing incarceration of any and all groups. So we are stuck. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting
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