Friday, April 15, 2005

Life sentence

I can’t believe it. The Seattle Times may be the first paper I’ve seen to run a fair, incredibly accurate story about whether it’s just and right to give extraordinarily long sentences to violent juvenile offenders. As someone who has volunteered at local prisons for several years, I am almost never able to have a calm, rational discussion about this issue – the second I start talking about juveniles who have committed murder, everyone and their mothers start on the “They gave up their rights as soon as they committed the crime” rhetoric.

I know that I won’t win here, but that is only easy to believe if you’ve never spoken with one of those convicted kids who’s now all grown up and still behind bars. Because I am technically supposed to be working right now, I am going to cheat and just tweak some of my thoughts from a piece I wrote for NEXT a couple years ago…

I still believe that criminals must be held accountable for their actions, but there’s something wrong with a society that replaces restorative justice with dehumanization and more violence.

At Seattle U, I was part of a student group that worked with lifers who had committed violent, non-sexual crimes. Over the course of two years, my encounters with some of the men made me question whether it is morally tolerable to condemn every incarcerated person as though all are dehumanized monsters incapable of ever returning to society successfully.

One person still lingers in my thoughts. He grew up surrounded by drugs, gangs and brutality and soon succumbed to the culture of violence, receiving a life sentence before he turned 21. When I met him years later, he was working with facility officials to keep volunteer programs in operation and teaching young offenders to read.

Like many inmates with whom I spoke, he worried that those who were eligible for release would re-offend because they lacked job and social skills that might help them stay out of trouble. Many of the men I met were not criminals because an inherent evil force consumed them but because they never had a chance to become anything else. They had all been convicted as juveniles; some would spend their lives behind bars, while others would be released after 20 or 30 years – but after decades inside the dog-eat-dog prison world, there is no way that they will be functioning parts of society. Prison takes people who could be rehabilitated them and wrings their last drops of humanity out of their souls. It’s a place where residents always look over their shoulders, where every conversation and interaction reinforces a hierarchy based on power and fear.

The men I knew seemed starved for human touch. Prison severs social ties, so those who finally leave have weak support networks to help them reconnect with the community. Prison is not the picnic many outsiders believe: It is hell, and its dehumanizing process often makes incarceration a vicious cycle. The younger men I knew told me they always believed they were worth nothing to the world, and prison enforces that perception by revoking almost all contact with people beyond the walls.

Some would argue that this is all prisoners deserve, but it is only possible to make such generalizations because outsiders are content to develop stereotypes about prisoners based on sociopathic TV and movie characters.

Society rarely recognizes that criminals are also brothers, sons, mothers. Instead, when people enter correctional facilities, we never need to think about them again — and if you never encounter a population, it is easy to make assumptions about every person in it.
It requires more than serious introspection to fully comprehend the complicated situations that lead people to imprisonment. It is criminal to remain ignorant about the incarceration system, because it allows us to throw away lives that could be redeemed if we progressed beyond initial gut reactions toward crime and challenged ourselves to treat offenders as human beings in all their complexities.

Is the boy who offends at 17 incapable of returning to society with adequate rehabilitation and support? Many studies suggest that it depends on the person. To differentiate between those who may re-offend and those who could return successfully to the outside world, citizens must be willing to support a panel to review individual cases, so limited funds support the inmates with the best chances. Some people could begin to make reparations for their transgressions if we push for rehabilitation and job-training programs that prepare eligible convicts for work in areas like social services.

Today, we view the prison system as a fix-all for problem kids; in reality, the steady stream of juvenile offenders will not abate until we devote more resources to addressing the roots of the problem, like poverty, homelessness and child abuse. Kids who kill almost always come from abusive, chaotic backgrounds; the system failed them long before they committed their crimes. I hope the current legislation passes in both the Senate and the House. Our country incarcerates more people than any other developed nation, yet most people have no concept of what that system looks like, how well it functions, or what it really accomplishes. Right now, we aren’t simply punishing juvenile offenders: we are destroying them, taking an eye for an eye and more. It speaks poorly about the “culture of life” we claim to value.

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