( – promoted by buhdydharma )
Previously posted elsewhere.
It’s been pointed out to me that I haven’t written a diary in a long while advocating for reform of the criminal justice system. The reasons for that are many. I don’t believe we will see meaningful reform of prisons or the Criminal Justice system until we first reform government and society. If our politicians are overwhelmingly corrupt, and they are, and if you can’t get people to care about bombing innocent people for no good reason or torturing people who may or may not have done anything wrong, and apparently you can’t, what are the chances of getting them to care about the systematic mistreatment of ‘criminals’? I have considerable experience in this matter and I can tell you the chances are slim. I guess I am guilty of feeling a certain amount of despair over the issue. Nevertheless, it is worth a try, and it is fair to say that I am remiss in not having done more to advocate for reform of what is a horrendously screwed up system.
Having served hard time in the Alabama prison system, I have experienced all phases of our Criminal Justice system including numerous arrests, jail, trials, convictions, imprisonment, parole and prison reform advocacy. The details can be found here: This is my story – I hope that it finds you
Racism is a prominent feature of the Criminal Justice system. Study after study has shown that people of color are much more likely to be a) arrested, b) convicted and c) imprisoned for a crime – not to mention d) executed. Beyond racism there is classism. People are generally just as uncaring, apathetic or hostile toward white prisoners/criminals/non-persons as they are about prisoners/criminals/non-persons of color. Poverty is the one thing most prisoners have in common. There are very few rich people in prison. It’s not because rich people don’t commit crimes, it’s because money will get you out of most of the kinds of trouble people get into. There are exceptions of course, but not many. You could also read up on recent law review articles here to get a clear understanding of the issues we face every day.
There are several nuggets of conventional wisdom about our system that are dead wrong. One is that while our system of justice may not be perfect, it is the best such system in the world. Our system cannot possibly be the best in the world, but even if it is, it is cold comfort that such horror is the best we can do.
Another nugget is that a jury of twelve peers renders perfect or near perfect justice. First of all, few people are tried by a jury of their peers in any but the most technical sense. There were no hippies on my jury, plenty of black people have been convicted or condemned by twelve white people, etc. Think for a moment about the society we live in and consider having your fate put into the hands of twelve randomly selected members thereof. Most convicts or criminal defense attorneys will tell you it is one hell of a crapshoot and quite often a real nightmare. This emphasises why many people going through criminal charges seek out a competent criminal lawyer.
The bottom line is that our Criminal Justice system is deeply flawed, from how people are arrested to how they are jailed, tried, defended, convicted and punished. The system is discriminatory, inhumane, and dysfunctional at every level. It fails in the simple administration of justice, it fails at the rehabilitation of offenders and it fails at its primary function – that of protecting society.
Yes, the protection of society is the fundamental rationale for the existence of the Criminal Justice system. So the extent that it does or does not achieve that primary goal is the measure of its value to society.
When I worked as the director of the Alabama Prison Project in Montgomery, Alabama following my own release from prison, I used to go around the state giving speeches urging people to care about our system enough to undertake serious reforms. My message was rarely well received. All too often people equate prison reform with ‘coddling criminals’, and few notions provoke hostility in those who’ve never been imprisoned more than the thought that those who are will be insufficiently punished. Ours is a highly vindictive and punitive society. It’s true in Alabama and it’s true elsewhere, though it varies somewhat from place to place I’m sure. Nevertheless, in most places in America, the outcome of a prisoner’s treatment is regarded as less important than the severity of it.
Perhaps my mistake was trying to get people in the Bible belt to care about the least of these their brethren. Go figure.
The problem with this harshly punitive approach to criminal justice, aside from its essential inhumanity, is that it defeats the purpose of the system, which is to protect society.
Harsh Punishment Backfires: Psychologists Offer Ways To Improve Prison Environment, Reduce Violent Crime
ScienceDaily (Aug. 12, 2009) – U.S. prisons are too punitive and often fail to rehabilitate, but targeting prisoners’ behavior, reducing prison populations and offering job skills could reduce prisoner aggression and prevent recidivism, a researcher told the American Psychological Association.
“The current design of prison systems don’t work,” said criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin, PhD, of the University of Arizona. “Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence.”
Most of society’s worst criminals are people who have been themselves horribly abused, either in childhood or at some other point in their lives, quite often at the hands of the Criminal Justice system itself.
When I went to prison I was a naïve 19 year-old happy go lucky hippie who knew nothing of the criminal underworld, hardcore poverty, violence or the gritty struggle to survive that is routine in our nation’s prisons. I had to learn quickly.
One thing I learned is that the most dangerous convicts tended to be those who had been caught up in the system the longest. There was a class of prisoners referred to as ‘state-raised convicts’. Charles Manson was one of these guys, and a fine example (IMO) of the harm that can be done by such a system. These were people who entered the system at an early age, usually as minors and who graduated, so to speak, from reform school to youth center to adult prison suffering huge quantities of the unique abuses so abundantly available at each stage. This passage tends to make people mean, violent and sneaky – the one’s who survive anyway. I learned to tip toe around these dudes and avoid them when possible…but I never stopped feeling sorry for them (though I had to be careful not to let on). It’s no way to live one’s life.
Prison changes people and generally not for the better, though that depends to some extent on the individual. People can and do overcome the corrosive influence of our merciless Criminal Justice system. I would count Meteor Blades and myself among that group – and I say that with the utmost respect for Meteor Blades. People do overcome these horrendous circumstances, but they shouldn’t have to. It does society no good to stack the deck against its members who most need help. It is self-destructive to deny them assistance, a form of national cultural suicide.
Perverse prison conditions become a problem for the larger society when the people subjected to them are released and reenter the free world. At that point the former prisoner is a product of his/her prison experience. Either he has been made better (rarely) or he has been made worse (most often). If he or she has seen significant amounts of hard time (time in a hard core maximum security prison) they have most likely been made dangerous, much more dangerous than they may or may not have been to begin with. So tell me, how exactly does society profit from this?
There is a revolving-door syndrome that all penologists, criminologists and convicts are aware of – offend, imprisonment, release, re-offend. And all too often each new offense is worse than the last. The return to prison is termed recidivism and the rate of it is staggering, hovering around 60 – 70%. Prison conditions are such that they tend to make people subjected to them unsuitable for life on the outside. Failure is all but guaranteed.
Our system doesn’t address the problem of crime – it aggravates it. Our prisons are factories that produce hard-core criminals with frightening efficiency. It’s crazy, it’s cruel and it’s self-destructive.
So my argument for Criminal Justice/prison reform has always been – if you can’t be bothered to care about the least of these our brethren, if compassion, kindness and mercy mean nothing to you, if actual justice does not matter, at least try to understand that reform is imperative, if for no other reason than society’s own self-defense. It is madness to keep doing this to ourselves.