OP-ED: The Dream of Transformative Prisons

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John Lash

John LashPrisons are some of the least pleasant places imaginable. The imagery conjured by the word prison is heavily influenced by Hollywood portrayals: razor wire, guard towers, bars, dank concrete cells, loud clanging and dangerous people. Surprisingly, Hollywood’s version is, at least visually, relatively accurate. On top of the oppressive look of the place is a layer of hopelessness, fear, anger and dehumanization. This is true even in prisons that look like college campuses, and even in facilities that warehouse youth. Even the “sweetest” (as prisoners say) of prisons is still a hellhole, at least in the United States.

This is acceptable to most people. In fact, many believe that such an environment has a deterrent effect, and that if prisons were cleaner, safer, or more supportive of growth their          purpose would be subverted. This stems from two interrelated ideas. The first idea is that punishment works to alter behavior, which in my experience is usually untrue over time. It needs constant threats to work, and people will work to get around it whenever possible. The second idea is that some people deserve this punishment. There is a strain of moral righteousness that we learn from an early age, and its realization is often violent. We are taught that this is justice.

Restorative practices ask those who have committed harm for something else: personal accountability and responsibility. It does this by bringing them closer to those they have harmed so that the effects of their actions are painfully obvious. This is different than laying down and accepting punishment. In fact, our adversarial approach encourages those who have transgressed to minimize and even deny their actions in an effort to escape as much punishment as possible. This method assumes that justice has to be forced onto others, and that those who exert the force are heroes.

Even so, we might find that for other reasons, usually safety concerns, we will decide that someone needs to be segregated from the rest of the community. From a restorative perspective we would want that segregated place to be something quite different than what we have come to expect.

One example is illustrated in Doran Larson’s recent article for The Atlantic, Why Scandinavian Prisons are Superior. Larson visited prisons across Scandinavia, including an “open” prison in Norway where prisoners had no physical barriers to leaving. Even in the more traditional looking prisons he found that the entire approach to what prisons should and can do is markedly different than in the U.S. In Scandinavia prisoners are treated humanely, given opportunities to heal and grow, and upon their release are much less likely to get involved in the criminal justice system than their American counterparts.

There are obvious differences in culture and scale, yet as Larson points out, America’s penchant for mass incarceration is fairly recent phenomenon, and is based more in politics than in data or best practices.

“Over the past four decades, Republicans and Democrats have waged a ‘tougher on crime than you’ arms race built upon white unease with the disruption of the old racial order brought about by the civil rights and Black Power movements. Once segregation was declared unconstitutional and black activists began to demand equal rights, white fear called out for “law and order.” Seeking votes and profits, politicians and media have encouraged the white public’s worst fears of becoming the victims of black perpetrators. Under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, and terror, the urban poor and disenfranchised, especially young black men, have been rounded up in mass numbers, largely for non-violent drug crimes, of which middle-class whites have been consistently shown to be equal perpetrators.”

I don’t know if a more damning description of American legal policy has been written. For us, entrenched in the warped view of reality sold to us by fear mongering politicians and competitive media outlets, it is hard to see the truth. The entire edifice is built on white fear, or more precisely on the use of white fear to get votes. Even though the system is crumbling under its own weight we must suffer the long term and unintended consequences of the political cynicism of both major parties.

The idea that things can be different will take some time to percolate into the mainstream, but it can come if enough people are willing to examine not only the corrupt political model (including the impact of private prison providers who make money when incarceration rises), but also of our own internal model of justice, the model that teaches us to harm people in order to stop them from harming others. Once we see the ineffectiveness of such an approach we can start implementing ways to truly hold one another accountable when we do harm.

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