Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What are Prisons Really For?

By Women in Crime Ink

 We've asked our contributors a few questions about the prison system. What is its purpose -- punishment, rehabilitation, or separating criminals from society? Is the system accomplishing that purpose? If the purpose is keeping criminals apart from the rest of society, are there alternatives besides incarceration in prison cells? 

Kathryn Casey:
It depends on the case. For those with life without parole, prisons are nothing more than a holding area, some more humane than others, where dangerous folks are segregated to keep society as a whole safer for the rest of us. For those who might someday get out, prison is primarily punishment, but it does offer, for those who reach out for it, a chance for rehabilitation.

Most of the prisons I've visited, and I've been in plenty down here in Texas, offer literacy and GED programs. Illiteracy is incredibly high behind bars. Yet I remember years ago meeting a convicted murderer who finished high school, got a bachelor's and a master's degree while serving a 60-year sentence. When I talked to him, he was working on a Ph.D. through a correspondence course. An inmate has to seek out the opportunities, and few do. For most offenders, the time in prison is simply punishment and wasted years.

One of the disappointing things is that there's so little treatment for sex offenders and violent criminals in prisons. Most aren't given any treatment at all until shortly before release, despite studies that show these types of ex-cons have high recidivism rates and require years of therapy, if there's any hope at all of preventing future crimes.

Donna Pendergast:
 The prison system aspires to rehabilitate offenders, but it isn't the purpose of the system -- only a goal.

The purpose of prison is to isolate offenders from society to protect the public and to punish offenders.  Unfortunately, although prison may not be a preferred experience, the amenities offered to offenders sometimes strain the bounds of belief. Libraries more extensive than in a prosecutor's office, large screen TVs, and well-equipped work out areas are standard fare at most prisons.  These privileges should be earned, not mandated.  I am not at all for any kind of abusive treatment of prisoners, but the prison experience should not be a posh one. That's why I am such a fan of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom I have posted on before.  Although he presides over a county jail rather than a prison, he makes sure that it is not a pleasant experience.  His standard retort to complaining prisoners is "If you don't like it, don't come back.

Katherine Scardino:
Jurors want revenge for a really heinous crime.  A kidnapping, rape or any crime involving a child induces immediate wrath on the defendant.  There is no discussion of rehabilitation.  I truly believe that a juror couldn't care less whether the prison system allows for counseling, education or any other individual assistance. The only issue is "how much does it cost?"  Your question: "why do we have a prison?"  It is, as Kathryn said, a "house" for people who have violated our laws. In capital cases, there are serious problems relating to sensory deprivation, where humans are kept in a box 23 out of 24 hours a day, and fed through a hole in the door.  This is inhuman and more than punishment. But, we say, they deserve this. These people hurt my family, my society, and should not be allowed to join the rest of us. No one disagrees with it. But prison should be more than a holding cell. Prison should be a place where bad people have an opportunity to learn about being better and returning to society as different people -- instead of learning how to be worse than they were when they entered the prison system. This does not help any of us.

Andrea Campbell:
Just as there are different camps on most major issues of any importance, there will always be disagreement on why offenders should be punished, how offenders should be punished, and what constitutes punishment. The common dictionary says quite generally that punishment is loss, severe treatment or suffering. Our prison systems are based on the concept that corrections serve these functions:  1) retribution, 2) deterrence, 3) incapacitation, and 4) rehabilitation. I think we also need to consider two other functions are enumerated: reintegration, and control.

But what about retribution for the victims? This system dictates that the severity of the offense should match the level of incarceration. If some petty, non-violent crook gets nicked, he might be able to do his time at an “honor farm.” Likewise, if a man has been convicted as a murderer, maximum security is probably what he’s earned. This methodology even weighs the type of probation on the same scale. In the aftermath, the probationary attention to follow-up and detail befits the crime similarly. Citizens should like this system, because they feel it shows the moral imperative of “getting tough on crime.” We might think about a new, modern Justice Model of punishment.

Like a “Just Desserts” concept,  it rejects the notion of rehabilitation as key and aims to avoid sentencing disparities. It seeks to match the punishment to the crime with room for variation, with a major difference up-front: To do a re-evaluation of the offender's past record. Then it would institute the type of justice a particular community wants reflected onto the behavior of its citizens. The foundation for the policy is that everyone is responsible for his/her own actions; that rational thought brought them to this end; that the criminal should bear the blame for his/her acts; and that the public needs protection and should be able to legislate punishment according to proscribed dicta of constitutional severity. As far as corrections, I think prisons should be privatized.

Pat Brown:
I think we have to look at two types of prisoners: those who can be rehabilitated and deserving of rehabilitation, and those who can't be rehabilitated nor deserving of rehabilitation. The latter are excessively violent repeat offenders, violent sexual predators and serial killers. Therapy does not "cure" arrogant psychopaths lacking in remorse or empathy; they will always be a danger to society, and they deserve no sympathy from us. Put them away and keep them away. Furthermore, we shouldn't be wasting taxpayer money allowing them to amuse themselves studying and getting degrees while their victims are rotting in the grave or living lives or psychological, physical or economic poverty.

The former group can be divided into two subgroups: those who are willing to be rehabilitated and those who are not. Prisoners should earn their right to favors by the society they have abused and when they earn that consideration by good behavior and hard work, then they can be moved to a rehabilitation facility where they can earn an income and pay for their education and vocational training like citizens do on the outside.

Lisa Cohen:
This topic resonates particularly for me. For most of the last five years, I researched and wrote a book (AFTER ETAN: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive) about the long, horrific “career” of Jose Ramos, a serial pedophile who damaged countless helpless children in the '70s and '80s (including Down's Syndrome and mentally challenged boys). He was finally locked away from any future victims in 1986 and has served the last 25 years in prison.  A generation of children have been safe from him. But in 2011, he’ll max out and will walk free unless someone can figure out a way to stop him. He’s never completed a sex offender program and has never taken responsibility for the worst of his crimes.

The father of Etan Patz, the boy Ramos almost certainly kidnapped, raped and killed, has said Ramos should never be released from prison.  “He’s a predator,” Stan Patz told me,  as well as a 60 Minutes audience, “and he should never be allowed near children again. He should be kept behind bars until he’s too old to walk.” His is a compelling argument.

But for the last year, I’ve been involved in a very different project, albeit on a related topic. "ONE LAST SHOT: A Story of Redemption," is an ongoing documentary I’ve been directing. It tells the story of inmates at maximum security Angola Prison, home to Louisiana’s Death Row and some of the most hardened criminals you will ever meet. Half of them are killers; 85 percent will die at Angola. The particular inmates I’m focusing on staff a hospice at the prison, where they help dying fellow inmates to a humane death, something most of them cheated their own victims out of.

I’ve now spent time with several of these men. Many committed their crimes decades ago. So did Jose Ramos.  They are soft-spoken and articulate. So was Jose Ramos whenever I talked to him.

But I watch as these hospice volunteers clearly care about their dying patients. They feed them, clean them, comfort them.  Sometimes they change their diapers.  They watch them slowly waste away and eventually die, holding their hands as they slip away.  They treat each other and their hospice colleagues with respect.  They speak eloquently of developing compassion, of nurturing their humanity. They say they seek redemption.

They seem different than Jose Ramos, and they want to send that message via this documentary. As I continue to film, I hope to learn for myself whether that is true.  If so, then programs like prison hospice, inmate counseling, religious rehabilitation, are worthwhile and need to be promoted.  I’ve heard over and over while at Angola the credo: “A man’s entire life should not be judged by his worst act.”  

Cathy Scott:
I'll quote my friend Kevin Powell, an author and a Brooklynite through and through who cares about his rundown community and is running for a seat in U.S. Congress.

One leg of his campaign platform is "rid the 'hood of crime and pollution." He says that includes redirecting imprisonment dollars into education and enhancing "alternative strategies to lower incarceration rates." He also calls for abolishing the death penalty. "These actions," he says, "will reduce the rates of recidivism while creating opportunities for success." As the late Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger once said in his "Factories with Fences" speech, "We need prison reforms that will encourage offenders to earn and learn their way to freedom." I'm with Powell and Burger. Change is needed, and giving inmates the tools they need is paramount for them to live as non-offenders and contributing members of society outside the prison walls.


t2sister said...

Our family has suffered two murders one by strangers and one by a former family member. In 1984 my sister Mary was kidnapped off the streets of Charlotte N.C. by a group of serial murderers. From what the police and prosecutors told us over a period of several days she was driven around Ga. and S.C being sexually assaulted and eventually murdered and dumped by the side of the road in Oconee County S.C. These men we finally caught and convicted of several of the murders including Mary’s brutal killing. In Mary's case they each got thirty years in prison. One of the men got the death penalty in one of the other cases and has since been executed.

In 2002 my 12 year old grandson Chris was beaten and tortured over a period of 4 days by his sperm donor (I will never use the term father for this monster again) and stepmonster in Sacramento California while he was there temporarily to finish a school term/year because of problems with bullies here in Charlotte N.C. In this case the sperm donor was convicted of first degree murder and was tripled out (three time loser) and got seventy five to life instead of 25 to life perhaps out in 38 years if he gets parole the first time out. He will be 76 years old when he comes up for parole the first time. The stepmonster got 15 to life for second degree murder but she could get out by 2013.
Interestingly when this monster lived here in NC he showed no signs of violence and had never even seen the inside of a jail cell until he went to California. It was easy to keep all this from us even with the internet, because before Chris was allowed to go we tried to do our homework. It was only after the killing I was able to learn to negotiate the Sacramento County web site to see he had been arrested, even then it never said for what. We would have had to call them.
Be that as it may, since losing these loving and well loved people to violent hands I have been very interested in the prison system. Reading these opinions has been very interesting to me and I am not even sure where to start.
#1. Punishment. Of course prison should be punishment; I believe however the punishment should fit the crime. What should the punishment be for murder? I am for the most part adamantly against the death penalty probably not for the reasons many others are against it. I believe if prison is so cool why do all these people want to get out? Hence murderers should get the longest sentences and should be disappointed at least once when they finally come up for parole. Sex offenders are so often not rehabilitated so there should be no maxing out of their sentence. They should be getting treatment the whole time however since pedophiles do not run into kids very often in prison there should be some kinds of tests to see if they still get aroused when they see children playing at the beach etc. Only when the therapist can honestly say they are nearly sure this person has changed should a sex offender ever get a change at parole.
As for other crimes again the punishment should fit the crime, since murder is the crime I am most familiar with (how odd to make a statement like that) I am mainly focused on that part of the program so to speak.

t2sister said...

#2. Rehabilitation is necessary for all prisoners because when they get out and walk among us once again. For some criminals prison is the only place they ever knew structure, or were able to get clean enough to have a clear head. Although I know there is some drug trafficking in jail that is another subject. I have no problem with them having libraries or gyms because we do have to bear in mind there are honest hard working citizens working in those prisons as guards, Drs, nurses etc. It would be a detriment to their safety if these prisoners didn’t have some things to do with their time. I do however believe like anything else these are privileges that should be earned. The same goes with television. I do think that even in prison they should be allowed their time outside to get sunshine and maybe play baseball to keep them healthy and wear them out.
The libraries are essential for these inmates to use so they can become literate and again prison may be the first time they have been exposed to the written word in such large doses. I am not saying all prisoners are underprivileged but they may have had parents who were distant or just not able to help these people as youngsters find the right path.
#3 Separating Criminals from Society. That goes hand in hand with punishment in that while they are in prison it is punishment we must be protected from these people. But protected for how long? If there is no rehabilitation then we will be faced with felons who have learned to perfect their craft and perhaps even learn more and better ways to commit other crimes. They will also be exposed to others or the friends of others on the outside with whom they may want to associate outside prison when they are set free. So to me it all runs together, it does seem certain we will have to make some serious changes to our sentencing guidelines and to the way we run our prison systems.

dudleysharp said...

Justice, retributive justice, just deserts is the foundation for all sanction.

We should not sanction people for any other reason. It is the only moral foundation.

Deterrence, incapacitation, protecting the public, rehabilitation, etc, etc., are all beneficial and secondary results of sanction, but not the reason for them.

Would it be just or moral to deter, incapacitate or protect by means of sanction if the person did not deserve sanction? Of ourse not.