Thursday, February 11, 2016

More late night thoughts after too much news and too much wine

I heard an interesting program on the radio ( about how prison is viewed in different countries.  The U.S. was an early reformer of prisons, but (especially with the invention of privately-run prisons in the U.S.) we seem to have lost sight of what prison is about.  Rehabilitation and reintegration into society have faded as goals, displaced by a stridently punitive attitude and an inhuman quest for profit.  In some countries, however, there has been an increasing emphasis on making offenders, especially younger offenders, into useful members of society.

There's a lot going on there, and a lot of it has to do with wether or not we regard ourselves as a society.  If you view society as a single entity, then healing society means healing the atoms that make it up.  If you view the state as the representative of the will of society as a whole, then of course the state should use tax money to do this work.

If you follow the inspiration of Margaret Thatcher and the modern development of conservatism, then there is no such thing as society--we are all individuals, all for ourselves and against each other.  A war on crime too easily becomes a war on "other"--other races, other classes.  It becomes too easy to find support for locking people up and throwing away the key.  It becomes too easy to yield to an animal demand for blood.  Prisoners are not to be rehabilitated or given anything, only punished.  The state is not us or our agent; it is also "other", so it has no more business looking after prisoners than, say, a private company. If state or company abuses prisoners on the way to making a profit, so what?  It is always "other" getting hurt.  And, as the researcher on the radio pointed out, as long as society doesn't exist and there is only "us" and "other," all "other"s are assumed to be bad.  Indeed, that is precisely the dominant attitude in this well-armed neck of the woods.

I am too much of a collectivist to see the merit of this view, which has gained such traction in our country.  I am too rooted in a tradition that encourages me to see all "others" as equally human.  So I was pleased to hear about programs that could take people--mostly young adults--who had been failed by family or education, who had gone wrong and done wrong, being helped back onto a good path.

Then I heard other stories on the radio, about executives at a coal company deliberately endangering miners for profit, about executives of an energy company poisoning a river, about a leading presidential candidate enthusing about torture, about a government choosing to poison its constituents with lead, about a county sheriff who engaged in torture and abuse of prisoners, and so on.  There are miscreants out there, and these folks have done a lot more to destroy the fabric of society than a punk with a revolver holding up a convenience store, or even a murderer or rapist.  They have generally been doing what they do for twenty, thirty, fifty years. The longer they have done it, the more profit they've derived, the more firmly they believe in their actions' absolute righteousness.  In most cases, they admit no wrongdoing, and such contrition as is seen is mouthed by their defense attorneys during their sentencing--and never again.

I don't know--can such people, who I must acknowledge as my fellow humans, be reformed?  Can they be redeemed?  Their energy and skills directed towards mending the society they've assaulted?  Or is a punitive model appropriate for such people? How does society heal itself of such cancers?  I do not know.