Friday, May 2, 2008

Prison and Rehabilitation

Sometimes when I ride my motorcycle home from work, I wait for the light to change and notice a white bus in front of me with grates on the windows, obscuring the faces inside the bus. I imagine the passengers, inhaling the air of freedom as the grates in front of them casts a latticed shadow across sad, frightened and angry faces. A palpable feeling of sadness emanates from the bus as I wait for the light to change. I have known decent people who sat with their bad choices on these buses. And there are those whose incarceration brings warmth to my heart on the coldest of nights as I count the years of incarceration ahead of them.
It was in light of these somber recollections that I looked at today's headline in El Diario that said "Plague of Suicides", accompanied by a picture of prison bars. The article noted that despite a drop in prison population, the number of suicides in city jails has more than doubled. In 1999, according to the article there were eight suicides in a prison population of 71,472. In 2007, there were eighteen suicides in a prison population of 62,599. This steep increase included five suicides in solitary confinement.
Prison wreaks havoc upon families blighted by it. The divorce rate among married couples separated by incarceration is around eighty percent. Gang violence and sexual assault are endemic in some prisons. Prisoners are often ignored by conservatives who focus on a law and order agenda and also by liberals who cast the incarcerated in the role of an oppressed group with no sins of their own.
Prison should be a last resort. Drug laws can and should be enforced, but community service and monetary restitution should be made into viable alternatives. Adding to the epidemic of broken families in our community should be avoided whenever possible.
Those who have merited the loss of their freedom do not deserve to be assaulted and tormented behind bars. They should be as protected from violence as any free citizen. Creating in an inmate a sense of rage and violation has often haunted society upon their release as they lash out in their pent up anger.
It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to jail a person. It is well known that some of those incarcerated have had only the most perfunctory legal representation. It is one thing to free the guilty on a flimsy technicality. It is another matter entirely when a lack of funds prevents the indigent accused from proving his innocence. The accused and society deserve to know that all doubt has been removed about the doubt of the accused. It is cheaper to make the short term investment in establishing this fact than to shoehorn someone into prison.
In biblical (Jewish) law, someone who testifies falsely to convict has passed upon them the sentence that they wanted for the defendant. This should be the norm in American law for those in the judiciary who suppress and manufacture evidence.
Education for those at risk should be extended to the poor who have not committed crimes. I have heard people complain that people who have broken the law get more help than those who obey it.
Prison should be austere. Prison should be safe. Prison should offer real help to those who will some day reenter society. Those serving life sentences or awaiting death should be separated from those serving shorter sentences.
There is no doubt that society needs a mechanism of punishment. But to neglect and ignore the mistreatment of prisoners diminishes us all. For the sake of prisoners and ourselves should reach out across the political spectrum to transcend the various forms myopia that distort our perceptions of this problem. There are groups and charities that help and advocate for those imprisoned. Next time you ride behind a prison bus or even after you read this story, contact one of these groups and offer your help, for the sake of the imprisoned, for the sake of their families and for the sake of us all
Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe Sphere: Related Content

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