Friday, March 27, 2009

Annals of Humanity

Two related tidbits about America's obsession with "toughness."

First, the Rockefeller drug laws will apparently be changed soon.  Passed in 1973, these New York State laws -- in essence, mandatory sentencing guidelines -- have since become symbolic of everything misguided about the US justice system.  They have put first-time, non-violent offenders into prison, often for the possession of comparatively small amounts.  By doing so, they have helped to sextuple the prison population.  Keeping all these people in prison has a social cost, as well as the obvious personal costs.  It also has a financial cost:

Since 1989 the yearly budget for the State University of New York (SUNY) has dropped from a little more than $1.3 billion to around $800 million. In the same period, annual spending on prisons in New York has increased from a little less than $1 billion to $1.7 billion.

The mandatory sentences tie judges hands so severely that murder, in its various forms, is sometimes punished less harshly than the possession of drugs.  This is one of the reasons that conservatives, including William F. Buckley, have criticized the laws.  It is also argued that the enforcement of these laws has been racially discriminatory, which has helped spur criticism from the left, and especially from civil-rights groups.

At last, state leaders seem ready to redirect treatment and rehabilitation over simply throwing people in jail.  A deal is said to be near.  But it will not be done without a fight.  Consider, for example, State Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, in Erie County, who is quoted by Gannett calling the reported agreement is "a 'get out of jail free card'" as well as "shortsighted and a dangerous precedent that will destroy communities, harm families and lead to the decriminalization of illegal narcotics."  Apparently, Volker likes spending money on prisons and taking it away from colleges, especially if it means keeping black people off the street.

And second, the "Supermax" system.  In the New Yorker, Atul Gawande has a fascinating piece of the surge in solitary confinement.  You probably know the starter facts already:  the US "has five per cent of the world’s population, [and] twenty-five per cent of its prisoners...." But you may not know the kicker: "... and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement."

Solitary is serious business. People who have been held captive and abused ruthlessly -- Terry Anderson in Lebanon, John McCain in Vietnam -- routinely agree that isolation from other human beings is more devastating than even the worst beatings. There is a significant body of research to back this up. Prisoners held in solitary are, often, damaged psychologically in ways from which they may never recover. Solitary confinement is torture, and arguably the worst sort.

This agrees with Christian theology. As it happens, Father Anonymous preached twice last week on the same text from Genesis -- "it is not good for the man to be alone."  As he said, this is far more than the rationale for marriage to which it is routinely reduced these days by theologians in search of a prooftext.  It is the rationale for all human society.  The whole creation is declared "good," except for loneliness -- which is "not good" in God's eyes.  In the Old Testament, the remedies are family, tribe and covenant -- those things which bind people together with each other and with God.  In the New Testament, the remedy is clearly meant to be the the the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ -- the community beside which, as Jesus repeatedly says, other claims, and especially those of kinship, pale. 

Well, that's theology.  You don't have to agree with those ideas to accept the discovery that human beings are neurologically adapted to require companionship, and that without it we are at terrible risk.

But here's the scary part:

In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence.

So how do you cut down prison violence?  Segregate the worst offenders.  Put them in a box where they can't hamr anybody else.  And, in practice, a warden may find it convenient to put other people in boxes, too:  not just the violent, but the escape-prone, or those who routinely break the rules.

There has always been a little of this -- remember "the Cooler" in Hogan's Heroes?  And it has always been considered stern to the point of inhumanity; Gawande cites legal arguments from 1890 to that effect.  What we were shocked to know is that in the past twenyy years alone, the use of solitary confinement has

... risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all.

Tens of thousands of American citizens are being tortured, in other words.  It is a legally-sanctioned form of torture, and it will harm some of them more than others (especially those with cognitive deficits like ADD).  But it is torture -- a violation of God's law, if not yet of human law.

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