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. 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 is in Fremont County. Other state prisons in Fremont County include Arrowhead Correctional Center, Centennial Correctional Facility, Fremont Correctional Facility, Four Mile Correctional Center, and Skyline Correctional Center.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".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.
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.