I was pretty impressed with the Pope’s visit to the prison, and later had the opportunity to view a documentary with Eric Holder and President Obama on the President’s visit to the Oklahoma federal prison. The first was filled with humility; the second, a stinging indictment of a system that doesn’t work on so many levels. With the billions of dollars that are invested in it and the number of nonviolent offenders that are locked up, one has the sinking realization that something that is that economically invested – jobs, salaries, education of the legal profession, etc — cannot simply be redone overnight. Particularly given the fact that the system is not one that is generally known for flexibility.
Where to go with reform? I think the first step has to be the family. Prisons deprive people most fundamentally of their families. Some people may never have had a very functional family to begin with, but the basic family should be preserved, or a functional constructed one that works for the individual should be established, even when a system decides that it should punish someone. No one should be forced to live in hostile forced environments where there is no positive social interaction. Without preserving social community, there is so little opportunity for integration into a broader system where every interaction is modeled on the family. Patterns propagate with broken homes, and children who grow up with no ability to have what is the normal regard for their elders because of social condemnation, in addition to the lack of potential income from a working parent.
The second reform that I believe is needed, is to stop the deprivation to the point of manipulation and dishonesty in relationships with others. Watching the documentary, one is struck by the fact that these prisoners have been manipulated with physical deprivation to the point where mentally they have to talk “rehabilitation speak” in order to have a chance of getting out of a system. One hears the phrase “con”, but the system makes the “con” – the disconnect with individual integrity that forces the behavior and speech that the system wants to hear in order to have freedom. Once this dignity and integrity is broken, it is very hard to reestablish in many (but not all) people. People learn to say what it takes to survive. We have to learn to listen to the individual, to respect their needs and feelings, so that they can learn to respect ours.
What may be most fundamentally corrupt in the system, is the plea bargaining. The threatening that forces individuals who would otherwise defend themselves to shut up and “be guilty”. The silencing.
In the end, one has to live outside the system to realize how the enforcement of just one way of being and existing is so individually wrong. People are diverse. Most have never had much of a voice in the system. We should all be more tolerant. Learn to resolve our differences without throwing people into a system that is beyond rehabilitation, and that even the President and the Pope could not change to the extent that it needs changing.
I found this site http://www.writeaprisoner.com/inmate-profiles/form-searchAdv.aspx that allows people to try to establish communication with individuals in the US correctional system. What I like about it, is that it allows people to select categories of interest for communication such as education, and that it provides some description of people. It also has educational profiles in addition to the pen-pal profiles that are accessed by clicking on the person’s name.
I think that the easiest educational mentoring option to establish with someone on the inside might be writing and philosophy. Many already have access to some religious programs within, so although discussion of theology can probably occur with some ease, providing them with a higher level of intellectual stimulation with philosophy might allow them to form groups of philosophical discourse on the inside that could reinforce and develop their ability to reason verbally, placing religion in a broader rational context. There were some pretty famous philosophers who spent time in prison, like Socrates and Boethius. Martin Luther also wrote some parts of his reform theology in prison, and there is of course The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Don Quixote by Cervantes, and even Marco Polo which are known to have been partially written and/or thought out in prison.
I think we all have a moral obligation not to forget those who have been removed from society. They are human beings with feelings and stories and many experiences not so different from our own in spite of their “label”.
It’s a little hard because they only have 250 words to introduce themselves. I guess that I am looking to correspond with someone who is:
- Interested in philosophy
after that, one might consider the following as assets:
2. Interested in teaching on the inside or outside when they get out.
3. Has an ability for independent thought.
4. Speaks more than one language is an asset (likes to communicate even across cultural barriers).
5. Enjoys animals, nature, exploration.
I’ve tried to pick 6 profiles and tried to be inclusive (men/women, different religious, racial, or cultural backgrounds). I’ve got at least three who have not received any mail yet. One is serving a life sentence. The President picked 6, the Pope picked 100, 5 or 6 should be a reasonable goal.