Today I went to jail. Actually, I went to the hallway outside of the jail: a cinder-blocked, avocado-green and corpse blue affair sealed off by a beige steel door that had to be buzzed open.
An old friend of mine is incarcerated, and I wanted to bring her a few books. What I really wanted to bring her was a coloring book and set of pencils, but it turns out that the only thing you can bring an inmate is a religious book or two. So I brought two vaguely religious books—one mentioned prayer in the subtitle and the other meditation—and included a short note. A broad-looking guy opened a heavy metal teller’s drawer and accepted the books. He checked the note, thumbed through the pages, tipped them upside down, and practically cavity-searched the binding. I do get it, of course; I could smuggle in sheets of acid or coded instructions or who knows what all else criminal minds come up with. But the whole thing was grim. Finally he accepted the books, but he still wasn’t sure if they’d make it past the next round of inspection.
I can’t shake the feeling that when it comes to the justice system, we are attaining anything but. My friend is in jail for theft. She doubtless committed the theft—or, in this case, the series of thefts—because she is a) a drug addict and b) completely broke. Neither of these conditions are her fault. In the absence of any kind of legitimate help, she ultimately ended up breaking the law, and is now in Corrections, bone-thin in a construction orange shirt that hovers over her jutting collarbones. I’m not disagreeing that she broke the law, or that it is immoral to take things that belong to others, or that there were probably other options she could have taken, and probably on multiple occasions. But who is better for this? Is my friend better? Certainly not: although there is the possibility that she may get clean, the only decent thing about jail. Is there restitution in her being incarcerated? No. Is she learning anything? It is doubtful. Is this justice? I can’t say that it is.
At the risk of hypocrisy, I understand why some people still, at this point in our cultural history, must go to jail. These are the people who hurt other people and have no intention of stopping. I still don’t think it’s justice for such people to be imprisoned, but society is short on options for this kind of person.
But when it comes to non-violent crimes, particularly addiction-related crimes, jail is just plain stupid. There is no growth here, nothing to stop the same misery from continuing on and on.
There’s something else. Even just getting buzzed into the hallway, I felt myself trying to present myself as a Good Guy. The control room operator (who, incidentally, stands on a platform half a head higher, giving him automatic authority) seemed to view me, as he may well view most visitors, as a potential threat. What kind of person am I that I would want to bring something to an inmate? Probably either some bleeding-heart liberal who just doesn’t get it or a criminal myself. The jail atmosphere is rife with a cold murk of suspicion. You can feel it at your ankles like fog.
How can it heal anyone to be locked up with people who hate you or, at the very least, consider you to be a lesser human being? I know what that feels like. After my own bust, when I had to check in once a month with probation, I was stunned at how rotten people were to me. They seemed to feel they had not only the right, but the obligation to treat me badly. After all, I was a Criminal, and did not deserve even the most cursory respect.
So you break a law because your circumstances have gone sour somewhere along the line. Maybe it started in the womb; maybe you were bred to break laws. Still, you’re a person. Who breaks a law. You are put in jail, where you perhaps do not have money for bail. Or you do, but you’re sentenced anyhow. So there you are, killing time in a cold dead place with stone and steel, treated worse than a zoo animal. Then you’re let back out. Are you healed? Is anyone better for this? Has society gained anything at all? Are you less inclined to go back—or, given enough time and institutionalization, do you actually begin to prefer the structure and familiarity of the penal system?
Then, how do you get a job? How do you fit back in with society? How do you leave behind the inmate culture to adapt to the majority culture, which is mainly made up of law-abiding citizens with a deep distrust of anyone who has screwed up? It’s a crap shoot. It’s more likely to go badly than well.
It’s wrong, what we’re doing. Dostoevsky said you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. I would like to live in a society that had as few prisoners as we could possibly manage.
How would this be possible? A good start would be to see law-breaking as a cry for help. By investing in criminals. Obviously, this is a radically different approach than what we’re doing now. We are so into punishment, as if that ever helped anyone, ever. What helps people is love and guidance. So, let’s take someone like my friend. What could we do for her? We could send her to a good rehab, one with counseling, appropriate medication and nutrition therapy to help her get her strength back together. We could offer her body work and energy work. We could get her involved in creative activities as part of the healing process—journaling, art, poetry. We could make regular twelve-step meetings available. We could help her transition into the right work. We could help her find a good place to live when she got out of the system, and follow up regularly for at least a year.
In return, she could pay restitution to the people from whom she stole things. She could do community service to repay society for breaking the law. She could mentor another inmate or contribute in some other, positive way to the healing of other people.
Crazy. To move towards people who behave offensively, instead of pushing them farther away.
Until we learn to change this, our society will continue to suffer, as our prisoners suffer. Needlessly.