The following is not a lovely poem exhorting the reader to think about how they consciously or unconsciously punish people they interact with. It’s not a personal story about how I’ve been punished or not. It’s about how our society punishes the least among us.
In a previous life I worked criminal defense as a legal investigator working for attorneys who defended those charged with crimes. Some of them could pay for their attorney, and some couldn’t. The same attorneys worked both kinds of cases, with the same amount of energy and care.
The “clients” were much the same, as well. Most of them had little education, almost all had nothing beyond high school. Many were persons of color, and many were indigent. Sociologists and educators have both discovered that children of poverty have a different set of priorities, they learn different attitudes towards authority, possession, and requirements.
Most distrust authority, because their parents and likely their grandparents, and so on, for generations ad infinitum, have been taught to not trust authority. They aren’t typically helped by those in authority, but instead are found lacking. Since they don’t have the list of attitudes, possessions, and requirements that middle-class and upper-class children grow up learning, they suffer failure as they struggle to maneuver life, including in a classroom.
They don’t know what the right choice is. They make the choice that they feel is the only one they have, to follow where their parents’ lead. If their parents dropped out of high school, they did not have a feeling of success associated with education, but instead a vague feeling of having been sorely used and abused by people who didn’t understand the ways of poverty. They teach their children to sneer at authority, as the attitude of disrespect is the only power they believe they have in the situation.
We incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. There are people languishing in prison for lack of availability of a particular socialization program they are court-mandated to attend, but which isn’t available at their particular incarceration facility. Or they are serving out a sentence in lieu of paying a fine, because they are poor. They can’t get out of jail until their fines are satisfied.
Our prisons are full of women and men of all colors, but persons of color and women statistically receive harsher sentences. Women in particular are reviled in the state of Oklahoma, where we give women harsher sentences than men who commit the exact same crime.
And there is no such thing, in this state, as rehabilitation. There is a prison out in western Oklahoma, where the wind truly sweeps down the plains, called Granite Reformatory. There is nothing reforming in the crumbling edifice, bur there is a great deal of punishment.
I visited a man there who was a witness in a case I was working. He was elderly, close to 70, and he had congestive heart disease as well as arthritis. He could not walk unassisted. The guards forced him to walk down two flights of stairs to the basement to talk with me. When we were finished, instead of signaling the guard by pressing a buzzer, I helped the man back up the stairs to the general common area. The guards came quickly over to make sure he was not doing anything untoward like, I don’t know, trying to escape? That man’s only escape would be through death. They spoke harshly to me for helping him up the stairs. I left as quickly as possible, so I didn’t say something that would get me in trouble, as well. As I walked out, I turned to say farewell to the man I had met, and his eyes smiled at me. My small kindness didn’t go unnoticed.
Do people not understand that those that they incarcerate are going to get out of prison some day, and live among us? Would it not be better to 1) not incarcerate nonviolent offenders, and 2) provide actual training programs in prison so inmates might learn skills that would help them get work when they get out? Could we teach them new expectations of the world, and how to function in it, so that they would not return to the insecure place they left? If the only thing they learn in prison is how to commit other crimes, or are so traumatized by violence and abuse from both guards and other prisoners, they will come out prepared only to repeat their failure.
Private prisons require the communities who are awarded their business to maintain a certain level of occupancy, so that they receive the income from the State or the Federal government that will represent a profit. That means that the community is invested in arresting, convicting, and incarcerating as many people as possible. Does anyone else think that is insane? That means they are invested in keeping the poor poor, so that they are good candidates for their facility. They don’t care if kids drop out of high school. “They weren’t no good nohow,” they say. Fresh fodder for the prison machine.
Why do we feel the need to maintain the puritanical heritage we were cursed with, when we, as thinking animals, and not just able to think, but to think about our thinking, higher cognitive behavior allegedly not available to lower species of animal? If we are so far above the other animals, why don’t we act like it?