Monday, August 26, 2013

Not Right

Somewhere in his book Blue Like Jazz, Christian author Donald Miller offers his opinion about Hell. Rather than a place of endless fire, he envisions it as a state of utter isolation, one in which a person's soul is cut off from everyone else's and left to float through eternity by itself.

Miller likens Hell to the existence of a spacewalking astronaut whose tether breaks and leaves him helplessly drifting off into space. The astronaut watches Earth grow smaller and smaller as he slowly recedes from it. He realizes he will never again speak to his loved ones or to anyone else. He realizes he will continue to exist without ever again experiencing human contact. As time passes his hair grows long and his beard grows full, filling his helmet and eventually blocking his view so that he can not even see the stars. He longs to lose consciousness and never wake up -- yet he knows no such blessing will ever come, and is aware at every moment that his lonely drifting will never end.

If I had money to wager on whether the actual Hell resembles the vision of Miller or the vision of all those amateur sketch artists, I would bet on the former. And lately I have had the feeling that American prisons are imposing a similar state on many individuals who deserve better.

When most people hear the word "criminal" they think of someone who has violated an unquestionable part of the code of human conduct. They think of someone who has murdered, raped, or beaten. However, there are vast numbers of people wasting away in our jails and prisons who have committed no such acts. Though many of them have committed acts that are against the law, we should remember Dickens's admonition that "the law is an ass" and Churchill's warning that "if you make 10,000 regulations you destroy all respect for law."

What does the preceding paragraph have to do with Donald Miller's take on Hell? Simple: Hillsborough County, Florida (where Tampa is located) recently announced that inmates in its penal system will no longer be able to receive any mail besides postcards. The wrongheadedness of this policy seems so obvious that I find myself wondering why I should have to explain that it's wrong. Then I remember that we (myself very much included) have been conditioned to believe "against the law" is the same as "bad," even though that's not always the case.

Numerous are the instances of punishments not fitting the crimes for which they are meted out. So too are examples of things being declared crimes that shouldn't be. Dealing with all of them might require a whole new blog unto itself, but for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that when marijuana advocates claim that people are put behind bars for years at a time simply for having pot in their possession, they are not making it up.

If you want another example, consider that in one of the two U.S. states I looked up, if an 18-year-old boy has fully consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, he could be put away for 20 years as a statutory rapist -- a sentence equal to 37 percent of his remaining life expectancy. All for doing something that teenagers have been doing for eons, and in spite of the fact that he could be a high school senior and his consenting girlfriend a high school junior, with less than 13 months between their birth dates.

Getting back to the new "mail" policy in Hillsborough County jails, imagine, if you will, that you find yourself imprisoned for a victimless act that most people assume would not result in imprisonment. And when you arrive in your new "residence" you find that not only is your freedom gone, but your ability to have any true and meaningful contact with your loved ones has also been taken -- for that is what Hillsborough's policy effectively does.

A postcard does not offer enough space for anything but the most cursory of information to be passed. Its space is not enough for a wife to express her love for her husband, or a husband to express how much he misses his wife, or children to brighten their father's or mother's day with a colorful drawing of a wished-for picnic in a field of flowers. By disrupting this leavening flow of human communication, the mail restriction does unnecessary damage not only to inmates but also to their families. It deprives them of the small but crucial bright spots that can do so much to sustain hope in the darkest of times. In a situation where people are already being punished, the new policy serves only to punish them more while doing nothing to increase their chances of being well-adjusted and productive when incarceration ends.

Perhaps we should not look at one county's penal system as being representative of the others throughout America. But we probably should, because if Hillsborough is imposing a postcard-only policy on mail, it is certainly not the only jurisdiction doing so, and others are sure to follow.

Face-to-face visits have already been eliminated from most jails and prisons. Technically, inmates are allowed to make phone calls to their family members, but only if their family members are able to afford the specific phone accounts and per-call fees that are required for those calls to go through.

In theory, American justice is about redemption in addition to punishment; but in practice, redemption often gets the finger from those in charge of prisons. The natural tendency of those who choose to go into prison work is not to look for the best in people, but to look for the worst; they are controllers, not counselors. This is not automatically bad because those traits are useful when dealing with bad people -- but like I said, many incarcerated people are not bad, and when jailhouse rules capriciously push aside respect for their humanity, it is not something we should tolerate if we are truly a society that values justice, human worth, and ultimately freedom.

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