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Prisons, Rehabilitation & American Values

Without ever having served any time in one, I cannot call myself an expert on prisons. But I suspect I know something more about them than the average person. I’ve visited more than a few throughout California in my work as a criminal defense attorney. I know that prisons are considered by inmates to be better than jails. I know this because I’m currently representing a prisoner in a habeas case, which has required him to be transported from the prison in Coalinga to Fresno and he has made it clear he would much rather be in the prison.

From what I’ve seen, while prisons are better than jails, prisons suck.

Some people think prisons should suck. That may be true, although I’m going to argue in a couple minutes here that they should not. Even so, most prisons suck more than any reasonable person — that is, if they truly are reasonable — would agree that they “should.”

Now, whenever I write a post like this, I always have to start off somewhere near the top — like here — vainly trying to explain to borderline readers what I’m not saying. In this post, for example, the sociopaths who have somehow managed to stay on the “right” side of the law — or at least to have managed not to get caught — will be gnashing their teeth at my statement that prisons “should not” suck.

I know that while I’m going to spend a minute here trying to clarify this, these people are still going to see me as some kind of bleeding-heart liberal who apparently thinks prisons should be super-sized country clubs complete with coddling, full-body massages, movie night (with popcorn!) and the like.

All I can do is assure you that I do not think that and try to assure anyone who actually thinks I’m a liberal that they just don’t know me. Compared to large populations of Americans, I’m probably most closely aligned with liberals, although I personally think that can only be said because people who argue for limited government — the kind that can’t get into everyone’s business — are considered liberals by those who stop reading or hearing the announcement of the more-accurate label after the first two syllables.

Conservatives, of course, want greater governmental involvement in the lives of the citizenry. As far as conservatives are concerned, governments should tell you who you can love, who you can marry, whether you can (or must) have children, how you can raise those children, what kinds of things you can read, see, or buy, with whom you can hang out, and so on. Oh, and they believe that government should also pick one official god and stick with “him” and the official “he” the government picks must be “their” god and not someone else’s. Anyone else belongs in Guantanamo, or in some super-duper-max prison. Which is worse than a regular prison and reserved primarily for Muslims who escaped being sent to Guantanamo by virtue of being American citizens and not having engaged in any terrorist acts.

That we know of.

This description of conservatives is especially true of the ultra-right-wing Christian conservatives, who can’t even follow their own god’s admonition about being a light to the world and who insist instead on being the enforcers of the ancient laws explicated in the Tanakh. Incidentally, these Pharisees don’t call it “Tanakh”; that’s for us god-damned liberal Jews. To the right-wingers, it’s the “Old Testament.”

On the other hand, I have to be fair and indicate that I’m not really a “true” libertarian, either, because I do think some government regulation is necessary, even of corporations like British Petroleum (BP), as I argued on one of my personal blogs the other day.

Still, the smaller the government, the better. It only needs to be large enough to protect us from being physically harmed by others, like rapists (which includes BP), murderers (which includes BP), thieves and destroyers of property (which includes BP) and similar types (almost all of which will probably include BP).

But I digress. It was a necessary digression because I had to make sure to distinguish that I am not a bleeding heart liberal who thinks prisons should be cushy country clubs.

As I said, though, neither should prisons suck. They especially should not suck unnecessarily.

Prisons should not suck for the simple reason that the prisoners held there are not all in it for life. At least, not yet: We still have quite a few laws on the books for which a life sentence has not yet been deemed appropriate. Thus, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, many of those prisoners will be released back into society.

It is de rigeur these days to believe that recidivism is inevitable. Criminals are immutable; they cannot change their evil ways. I’m not sure how it is that conservatives believe that good people like — oh, pick just about any minister who turned out to be a seducer of young boys, or girls, or who took huge amounts of cash and spent it profligately on his own desires — how they think these people can change from good to evil and back to good again, but other people in our prisons can’t.

In any event, they’re wrong. People can change. They do change. Furthermore, some people in prisons are there for committing crimes that they will never, ever repeat in their lives again, no matter what. Some people make stupid mistakes in their lives and then — unless we help them — come to define themselves by their mistakes eternally (just like those who condemn them) and they become habitual life-long lawbreakers. Without enough self-respect to recognize that a mistake doesn’t have to mark them for life, they will return to society, but cannot be reintegrated. They will hurt, or steal, or otherwise transgress our laws, again.

And many of them will take that path because our prisons suck.

Prisons dehumanize people. They start off being treated as animals by virtue of being locked up. That aspect of it is unavoidable; it’s a consequence of the fact that we justifiably cannot tolerate the presence of people who will do what they’ve done and we must both remove them from our midst and punish them.

But we must also rehabilitate them. Because, as I said, a large number of them will return to us. We will benefit best if we can reintegrate them into our society, rather than encourage them to commit another crime, after which we will lock them up again. (If we don’t run out of space and money. (2015 update: the link I previously had here to the Fresno Bee story has disappeared.)

The simple fact is that while our prisons suck, we cannot hope to accomplish this. Prisons not only treat people like animals through locking them up, which I’ve already said is necessary and legitimate; they also treat them like animals in myriad other ways. Guards abuse prisoners. Routinely. They mock them. They steal from them. They hassle them unnecessarily. Sometimes they beat them, which is not part of any legitimate punishment sanctioned by our courts.

In addition, many of the procedures in prisons are excessively draconian and followed to the letter with an eye to inflicting the most pain. Conversely, some of the procedures are arbitrary in their enforcement, or contain “loopholes” that allow guards to further abuse the prisoners, such as when a guard “pockets,” “trashes,” or otherwise “misplaces” what we in California refer to as a “602”: a complaint that should be processed through the informal administrative appellate process, before moving on to a formal administrative process and, potentially, to be the subject of a writ in a court of law.

And that doesn’t even get into the harmful things prisoners are allowed to do to one another.

None of this is conducive to rehabilitation. Quite the contrary, it encourages exactly what we don’t want: a lack of trust in the idea that societal norms and rules have value and are worthy of a prisoner’s attention. This is why, currently, prisons function more as schools, teaching those who have done badly how to do worse, or as factories, cranking out better criminals.

The safe enjoyment of the world in which we live requires that we lock up criminals. But the safe enjoyment of the world in which we live also requires that we help prisoners to reform.

Unless and until the sociopaths who sanction, build and run the systems can be reformed, unless and until we as a society can let go of our belief that prison should suck, the reformation of prisoners is impossible. We will only “harden” those we send there.

Making our prisons suck is inconsistent with our rehabilitative goals andinconsistent with American values.

We need to rethink not just our approach to crime (which I’ve often argued elsewhere), but our approach to imprisonment. Yes, our goal should include the temporary or even permanent removal of people who have committed crimes from our midst. But in reality, that is a sub-goal.

Our real goal — the only way to make us safer — has to be rehabilitation.

The direction we’re currently moving — making every crime subject to life in prison — is an unsustainable goal.

It is also inhuman.