Friday, March 6, 2015

Alternatives to Prison (Part 1 of 3)

Introduction:  For almost 200 years, the treatment and punishment of convicted criminals was defined by blending the Pennsylvania System and the New York System.  And, of course, it did nothing to remediate either the offender or the harms.  People came out of prison worse than when then went in.  They re-offended.  And their victims often were the same people they hurt before.  It is a cliché in corrections that prisoners are returned to within 100 yards of where they were arrested.  However, we have made progress.  Community corrections, moral reconation therapy, and reintegrative shaming are among the new modes that provide successful outcomes.

Failure Modes

Historically, transgressors were exiled.  The modern prison solves that problem with topology: we lock them in, not out.  However, the modern prison system does not have deep roots in history.  Until America in the 18th century, prisons were only for holding people until they were brought forward for punishment.  Some people might never leave prison, but incarceration was not the intended punishment for the crime. 

The modern prison began in 1788 with the Penitentiary House of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia.  The purpose was specifically to reform the penitent.  The intention to remake and rehabilitate the offender led to the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829.  Separating convicts into solitary cells was a radical idea, consistent with the social theories of the Enlightenment.  Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (Dei delitti e delle pene, 1764) launched the modern study of penology within criminology.  Beccaria argued against capital punishment and torture. His ideas were incidentally consistent with Quaker theory on salvation.  For them, solitary confinement was supposed to allow the penitent to come to terms with God.

However, an alternate model also informed penology:  convicted offenders should live and work communally under close supervision coupled with physical punishment for non-compliance.  That was the Auburn System created in New York following the appointment of Elam Lynds as warden of the prison in 1821. When flogging finally was prohibited in 1847, different punishments were invented. The striped uniform was another innovation in the Auburn System.

From chain gangs and work farms to separate facilities for low, medium, and high-risk offenders, prisons in America achieved little except to keep some people out of the sight of others.  Generally, prisoners themselves controlled their daily routines, usually with the most violent preying on anyone less aggressive.  Illegal drugs passed into prisons through corrupt guards.

Radicals and Reformers

Following the intellectual ferment of the 1960s, new methods for remediating harms slowly advanced within criminology; and they have found some success.  The basic assumptions of their sociology often are informed by some school of socialism, whether Marxist, neo-Marxist, or postmodern.  For them, crime is a response to oppression. For the classic Marxist, economic exploitation reduces the proletariat to criminal activity.  In point of fact, we have found that when the economy improves, crime goes up.  The current long recession (from 2001 to the present) has seen crime go down. 

However, their point is well-made because the outcomes of criminal action are different for different classes. And class correlates with race, though correlation is not cause.  See Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class by Lawrence O. Graham (HarperCollins, 1999).  When suburban kids are caught shoplifting, or shooting out streetlights with a pellet gun, or using drugs, their outcomes are different from that of their inner city cohorts. Suburban offenders receive many of the treatments and remediations outlined here.  The poor get prison. 

Moreover, we all offend.  Newt Gingrich once said that for most Americans, the posted speed limit is a benchmark of opportunity.  The only relevant questions are: Whom did you hurt? And what are you going to do about it?


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