by Julia Steiny
God knows what possessed me, but instead of multi-tasking I stayed glued to every hideous moment of PBS's Solitary Nation. The Warden of Maine State Prison, Rodney Bouffard, so questions the practice of solitary confinement that he allowed TV cameras to document 6 months in his solitary-confinement unit. The hour-long piece shows blood, guts, feces, desperate screaming, and a level of misery that makes the worst media violence look tame and staged.
Don't watch it. Honestly. Just take my word. I squirmed knowing that as an American, I allow a public system to commit this torture. Costing enormous taxpayer dollars, solitary turns human beings into self-mutilating, self-loathing, fiercely-murderous animals. Mind you, these guys committed a violent crime while in prison. But we're such a punitive culture, we don't even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly, by putting them in a prison-within-a-prison.
Bouffard says that 80% of his offenders will be released. "You can have them do their time in isolation, but I don't want them living next to me when you release them. The normal person thinks that if you punish them, they're going to get better. The reality is the opposite. It's really dangerous." Got that? What we're doing is really dangerous.
Ironically, Maine's laudable prison reforms have yielded the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, 145 people per 100,000. That state works hard to imprison only those who can't be maintained safely in the community. Louisiana's rate is almost 900, the highest, but the average is 480.
The school-to-prison pipeline generously feeds this system.
Violent criminals start young. One Maine inmate tells of having killed two prison guards while already in prison at age 16. Sixteen?! How old was he when he committed the crime that first got him in prison? Fifteen? Fourteen?
Somehow he's got a wife and 2 daughters. As a lifer with no hope of release, he wants to be transferred to a prison near them so they can visit. With chilling credibility, he says that with nothing to lose, he has no incentive not to kill again, and threatens the very people in the room. He wants medication because it makes him calmer, more social. But the officials feel he hasn't learned his lesson and so hasn't deserved the break. Like he's still a wayward schoolboy.
First we kick bad kids out of school. Then we kick young offenders out of society, and finally we kick bad prisoners out of the prison's mainstream.
Punishment doesn't work, never has.
There are two basic theories of punishment that both rest on certain assumptions, whether for adults or juveniles. "Retributists" assume bad guys deserve what they get. They had choices and made a bad one; they hurt someone, so we'll hurt them. "Utilitarians" believe punishment deters future criminal activity. Next time they'll think twice. Actually, research shows that over three quarters of ex-cons recidivate within five years, so forget that. In any case, these theories assume that criminals are rational people weighing costs and benefits.
In fact, criminals tend to be young and impulsive, and not surprisingly, they usually have personal histories of trauma. Fully 20% of prison populations have a diagnosed mental illness. Far from rational, these are kids, or people with seriously impaired thinking. In solitary they slash their wrists or misbehave wildly to get admitted to the mental health unit where meds will ease the rage, urges and pain.
Why not allow the dangerous to be chemically restrained?
Prison psychiatrist Dan Bannish says that his mental-health unit "is about treatment, not punishment. Everything is geared toward skill development, relationship building and appropriate interactions. Everything about it is about becoming social. They're used to coming from environments where people hurt each other, where they're anti-social. This is a whole build-up of how you relate to other people. You have to practice it every day."
Right, because big surprise: these guys were lacking pro-social skills in the first place. The science of "criminogenics" argues that the way to prevent recidivism is to make sure that when offenders are released, they are not socially isolated or still holding the antisocial beliefs that lead to their misbehavior. In other words, they shouldn't be in the same crazy-making situation they were in when they committed their crime. As an advocate for children's mental health, this makes me crazy.
Currently America's incarcerated population is 2.4 million people, the largest by both rate and number in the world. Of the total, 51% are drug-related offenders. Robbers are only 4% and murderers 1%. Substance abuse is a mental illness.
Therefore, raw prison statistics argue that we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not a nation with the world's largest share of bad guys.
It's insane to spend massive amounts of resources on punishment instead of mental health promotion. Our priorities further crush vulnerable kids growing up in harsh conditions.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.