Posts Tagged ‘prison reform’

‘Our great embarrassment as a civilized nation’

In the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” we have to end our horribly destructive, dysfunctional reliance on physically and psychologically ripping our people apart from their friends, family, and communities – often setting them up to return to prison again, later, in a maddening, self-perpetuating, defeating cycle, to serve even harsher, more punitive sentences.

(Federal judge Raymond J. Dearie, formerly the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, once aptly lamented: “Why this love affair in this country with lengthy incarceration, to our great embarrassment as a civilized nation?”)  

No longer can we tolerate the pervasive rehabilitative deprivations and despicably inhumane living conditions that define our penal system.

As a Norwegian prison “governor” and clinical psychologist eloquently and pragmatically cautioned in a 2014 piece exploring “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful”: “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer.

The punishment is that you lose your freedom.

If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

We must follow the sage advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in demanding an end to racial discrimination in 1963, famously articulated the “fierce urgency of now”; for it is that same unrelenting, unquelled urgency that no less characterizes our nation’s long-lagging need for meaningful, far-reaching prison reform.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Reverend King poignantly observed that “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men [and women] are no longer willing to be plunged in the abyss of despair.”

It is this dark and ominous feeling that currently dominates morale inside America’s prisons today; danger is the foreseeable consequence.  

Outside of our too numerous prisons, with their too crowded confines, the need for people with integrity to speak up and to act out on behalf of achieving prison reform is every bit as pressing.

For as Dr. King elegantly concluded in his book “Why we can’t wait”: “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man, it tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”

– Stephen Cooper, “America must face and fix its unjust prison system.” Tennessean. September 8, 2018.

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“…the lines of influence had to run not from the prison to the community but from the community to the prison. Rather than serve as a model to the society, the penitentiary was to model itself on the society; it was not to be an antidote to the external environment, but a faithful replication of it. ‘The conception of the prison as a community’ was the organizing formula. ‘Temporary exile into a temporary society as nearly as possible like normal society on the outside would seem the best solution.’

Such an orientation appeared first in the 1870′s, with the Declaration of Principles of the National Congress. But the Progressives enlarged on these ideas and made them relevant to the operation of all types of prisons. Persuaded of the essential soundness of the American system and committed wholeheartedly to the notion of individualizing criminal justice, they labeled the traditional prisons ‘machine-like,’ and criticized them as failures at rehabilitation. How could it be otherwise when they prescribed the same medicine to all inmates and did not prepare them to reenter society? ‘The old prison system,’ noted on reformer, ‘exists in terms of suppression and isolation of the individual and in a denial of a social existence.’ It was absurd to compel a prisoner to follow ironclad rules in the institution when he should have been helped to adjust to the democratic quality of community life. The prison had to be redesigned to meet individual needs and to facilitate an eventual return to society.

The task may well have appeared formidable. After all, every state prison held anywhere from one thousand to three thousand inmates in an environment that, at best, resembled a factory. But Progressives were certain of their ability to individualize and democratize the prison. They wished to abolish such inherited practices as the lock step and the striped uniforms. They encouraged liberalized correspondence and visitation rules; to maintain contact with the outside society would facilitate the inmate’s later adjustment. Further, they detested the rule of silence; inmates were social creatures and should be so treated. Progressives also looked to introduce amusements into the prison routine. Sports, exercise, movies, bands, and orchestras, all now seemed appropriate. And so did commissaries, where prisoners could purchase the small but significant amenities that would heighten their sense of a more ordinary life.”

– David J. Rothman, Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America. Revised Edition. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2002 [1980] pp.118-119

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“By its very success, the liberal conception of crime paved the way for its own obsolescence. In the mid-nineteenth century, the prison had become the most widespread form of punishment, and solitary confinement the standard method for managing the penitentiary population, at least at night. But this situation soon met with a critique of the some of the most basic assumptions of liberal penality.

The critique began as an implicit question: Prison is an instrument of punishment, no doubt – but is it no more than that? Is it merely a method of forcibly inculcating honest ‘habits’ – that varnish of conformity with which Toqueville was perfectly satisfied? Even if it is agreed that crime is first and foremost an act, does it necessarily follow that such an act constitutes a one-way crossing of the border between honesty and crime? Are the mind and the soul of the criminal completely impervious to influence? The science of motivation, emerging from the practice of routine prison management, would soon be making a contrary claim.  

The idea was to act upon the criminal’s free will, the capacity for reason abiding deep within him; to pluck the subtle strings of desire and hopefulness that kept this capacity alive. The prison, the locus of punishment, would now turn to the business of motivating prisoners to do better in life. The horror it inspired in potential criminals, its fearsome reputation as a place to be avoided, would catalyze a rebirth of the will and a renewal of self-esteem. Yes, the habits prescribed by Tocqueville and his followers would have to be acquired. The key difference was that they would now be acquired willingly, progressively, and with the prisoner in control of the pace of change.

This reconciliation with the prisoner’s agency, this faith in his capacity to regain the self-esteem denied him by Tocqueville, was expressed by the Quebec prison inspectors in the following terms, in 1869: 

The cultivation of pride and self-esteem in the prisoners is a great moral strength to them. Pride is the most powerful sentiment of humanity, for it is the most purely personal. From this is drawn the principle that we should not degrade those coming to prison and already blighted by crime.

Investing in motivation as opposed to coerced submission because the cure-all applied by the liberal prison. This approach accorded with the primary values of liberalism in that it recognized the operation of the will as primary even in criminals, yet remained compatible with the imperatives of prison management, and especially cell-based management. The Irish model of Walter Crofton and early parole were the very quintessence of this development. Other examples were indeterminate sentencing and the use of merit systems in reformatories. In its new incarnation, prison was at worst a purgatory, one whose duration could be shortened by good behaviour.

But how then was it to play its punitive role, now that it was also saddled with the job of instilling motivation in inmates? Here, ironically, in the marrow of the criminal personality, was the substance of the liberal ethic of will and responsibility. The hope of improvement and personal progress at the heart of liberalism collided frontally with the need to punish deviations from legality by stigmatizing their perpetrators.”

– Jean-Marie Fecteau, The Pauper’s Freedom. Translated by Peter Feldstein. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017. French edition 2004. pp.128-129.

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“Imprisonment requires the disposition of prisoners’ bodies within the spatiotemporal setting of the prison, and there is still some hope of seizing the opportunity of their time in custody to improve them.

This diffuse hope found expression in the recurrent debate over the cellular system. A strange trajectory indeed, that of the cell. In early times, during the glorious epoch that saw the birth of the penitentiary, cells were regarded as the paradigmatic instrument of reform, settings in which the prisoner’s mind could be systematically worked on without undue interference from other prisoners. But the cell did not fade into memory along with the decline of reform sentiment – quote the contrary…[they] strongly approved of the cell as a key instrument for isolating the prisoner from the society of his congeners…

In this discourse, the cell becomes the preferred instrument of management, an administrative cure-all making up for the notorious insufficencies of classification. However, while most observers agreed on the advantages of solitary confinement over differential treatment by category or class, they differed markedly on the value of confinement as a treatment. Here again, the waning of reform as a purpose of imprisonment is evident.  ,…some criticized twenty-four-hour solitary confinement only because they favoured more humane treatment for criminals; he continued to believe that nightly lockup was necessary. Some observers argued that total isolation drove prisoners insane. Reform had to rely on other methods such as supervised parole. Moreover, a notable semantic shift was taking place among the advocates of the cellular philosophy, which was now regarded as contributing to a new form of socialization (rather than isolation) of the prisoner.”

– Jean-Marie Fecteau, The Pauper’s Freedom. Translated by Peter Feldstein. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017. French edition 2004.  p. 123.

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“If the diet in our prisons be dreaded, the idlers will not direct their steps so often towards these establishments. There are in the cities of Montreal and Quebec a certain number of rogues who quit the prisons to return to them, after an absence of a few days; for these miserable wretches – the greater number of whom are without any home – like to establish their abode at the common jail, where they find clean beds, an agreeable temperature, chiefly in winter time, and a certain abundance of food, comparatively speaking, all of which induce them to consider the prison as palaces.

Before building [a new central prison, for which the inspectors have been making the case for twenty years], it must be borne in mind that it is intended for all classes of criminals; that it will have to shelter the scum of society, wretches, who, half the time, have neither home, nor food, nor clothing, picked up by the police in the filthy streets and in the haunts of vice and infamy in our cities; and that, accustomed as they are to every misery and privation, it would not be right to lodge them in a palace, in a building which would create a desire to remain in it, in a word a dwelling affording more comfort than the dwellings of half the honest people of the country…The inhumanity and barbarity of by gone ages must be carefully avoided; but on the other hand we must not be carried away by a ridiculous and dangerous philanthropy.

If…prompted by an exaggerated sensitiveness,, a mistaken idea of philanthropy, we place these criminals in a better position than they were in before committing their crime, does not the punishment become an illusion, a mockery, I may even say a reward for crime. Let us ask ourselves whether the treatment of criminals in our gaols and penitentiaries is in the interest of society and of the state.”

– “Thirteenth Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, Asylums, &c.,&c. for the Province of Quebec for the Year 1882,” Quebec Sessional Papers, Volume 16, pt. 15, pp. 15-17.

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“Penitentiary isolation had, after all, aimed to penetrate minds and recapture hearts. The moral treatment and reform of the offender necessitated action on the soul; it demanded a borderline totalitarian obsession with changing him from within. Liberal discourse sounded the death-knell of this ideal. It insisted that the inner space from which the will emerges, and where responsibility rests, should be free from interference. A custodial sentence is merely that: a loss of one’s physical freedom. It does not imply that any learning is being done. And, in a world where regulation is a function of the market, the only thing confinement can accomplish is to punish prisoners by excluding them from the market’s operational logic. Individuals are to be judged by their acts. They will be held accountable only for the outward, explicit manifestations of their will. In this view, crime is not so much an indicator of societal decadence as an individualized form of defiance. In the great liberal transition, the individual has regained responsibility for his actions, whether good or bad, and must bear the consequences.”

– Jean-Marie Fecteau, The Pauper’s Freedom. Translated by Peter Feldstein. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017. French edition 2004.  p. 117.

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“The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

A second, and more practical, but less systematic, form of this Socialism sought to depreciate every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by showing that no mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence, in economical relations, could be of any advantage to them. By changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism, however, by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be affected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations; reforms, therefore, that in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour, but, at the best, lessen the cost, and simplify the administrative work, of bourgeois government.

Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. 

Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism. It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class.”

– Karl Marx and

Fredrick Engels, “Socialist and Communist Literature.The Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848.    

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