Sunday, October 16, 2016

Revenge is profitable. But, what about the meaning of human?

The nerd that I am, I scan the letters to the editor in the magazines that I value.  Thus, there I was reading the letters in the latest issue of the Scientific American, when I had to stop and start reading the letter from the beginning in order to make sure that the words were what I thought they were.  Here's how the letter begins:
Michael Shermer investigates the causes of death-row inmates' displays of positivity in “Death Wish” [Skeptic]. Although I am not on death row, I have served five years of a life sentence, so I may have some insight into this.
You see why I had to get to the beginning?  The letter writer is five years into his life sentence.  It is a letter in response to Shermer's column. In the Scientific American.

So, I did a Google search for the letter writer's name "Gordon Schumacher."   I pulled up another letter from him to the Denver Post, in which he is identified as "an inmate at Colorado’s Fremont Correctional Facility."   He writes in the letter, "As long as society is focused on revenge instead of healing, nothing will change."

In response to the letter in Scientific American, Shermer writes:
The problem that Schumacher identifies in the prison system is largely the result of the U.S. still mainly engaging in “retributive justice,” or the understandable desire for revenge and to give criminals their “just deserts,” instead of “restorative justice,” or the attempt to repair the damage done to the victim and to rehabilitate the perpetrator. Many countries are experimenting with complementing retribution with restoration, to great effect for victims, perpetrators and society.
Our system focuses so much on revenge.  There is an entire prison-industrial-complex that profits from this revenge.  Take the case of Canon City, in Colorado, where that letter-writer/inmate is.  I had no idea about the place until yesterday.  Wikipedia notes that the major employer includes the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Colorado Department of Corrections operates the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.[19] In addition to several correctional facilities near Cañon City in unincorporated areas in Fremont County, Colorado State Penitentiary, the location of the state death row and execution chamber[20] is in Fremont County.[21] Other state prisons in Fremont County include Arrowhead Correctional Center,[22] Centennial Correctional Facility,[23] Fremont Correctional Facility,[24] Four Mile Correctional Center,[25] and Skyline Correctional Center.[26]
 Quite a few years ago, back in my California days, those of us interested in public policy issues started worrying about this dangerous prison-industrial-complex (the phrase being a takeoff on the famous military-industrial-complex that President Eisenhower worried/warned about.)  I lived in a county where cities competed against each other to be the location for a new prison.  It was bizarre.   And, politicians--locally and nationally--found that the public liked it if they seemed tough on crime, especially after how Bush exploited the Willie Horton incident in his campaign against Dukakis.  Incarcerating people for all kinds of crimes became a winning political strategy.  Just awful.

As the Economist noted a year ago in its commentary on America's disgraceful prison-industrial-complex,
Once we develop the mental habit of lumping together murderers and muggers as irredeemable monsters, it becomes possible to convince ourselves that it's okay to lock a man in a cage for most of his remaining years for having committed a relatively trivial "violent crime".
A reflexive dehumanisation of "criminals" and "felons" discourages the exercise of real judgment in sentencing and probation. It allows us to sleep well when judges commit injustice in the name of justice, consigning people to captivity long after they ought to be let free. And it helps us rationalise the disenfranchisement of those who are, eventually, released.
President Obama has set us (re)thinking about this awful mass incarceration.  We will hope that we will continue along this path and become civilized in the way we treat humans.


Mike Hoth said...

The best way I ever heard this described is that "somewhere along the line, we stopped being tough on crime and started being tough on criminals". Even those people who do get out of prison find that having a criminal record (especially a felony) keeps them from finding a job. Nobody wants to hire the dangerous criminal who just got out of prison, and many of these people can't get a second chance at life. They become homeless or return to crime, and then we shake our heads at them.

Anne in Salem said...

That is an excellent album, though I think I prefer San Quentin.

I don't understand how a criminal can do anything "to repair the damage done to the victim" no matter how the prison system treats him.

Prison can both punish and rehabilitate at the same time, at least in theory. The inmate's willingness to rehabilitate himself is central to the efficacy of such a plan. Sufficient funds are required, which is an uphill battle in most states.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, it is terrible that we do not really offer a second chance, and merely shake our heads ...
"Sufficient funds are required, which is an uphill battle in most states"--it is all about our priorities. Have you looked recently at our federal military budget? We have gazillion bazillion for bombs and missiles but when it comes to helping fellow humans, we are quick to say that we are out of money :(

Ramesh said...

Great comments on a great post. Can I explore that there are crimes and crimes and perhaps different solutions are appropriate. Retributive justice is appropriate for heinous crimes, so I would not necessarily argue against the principle.

However most of the American prison population is there not for those sort of crimes. The biggest problems is drugs and sometimes trivial offences like smoking weed. Many are locked up consequent to poverty - can't stump bail, missed court appointments etc. These are the sort of non violent offences where I believe retributive justice is completely wrong. They should be treated differently by society. If this is done, the American prison problems would be solved by itself for the most part.

Most read this past month