Moment of Truth
E-Mail by Michael Tenneson Bio/Address
never realized how hard it would be to write a simple essay that gives an overview of the
"typical" convict, prison and prison program, until I began this article.
My greatest obstacle is in condensing such a complex subject into a brief format such as
this, but the journey of a thousand miles does begin with the first step, so... let us
step into the sordid world beyond the cell door.
I am an open-minded, reasonable, rational, semi-intelligent thirty nine year old man who is going to make some strong statements here; statements that are based on nearly two decades of intense study on the dynamics of crime. My assertions are based on the everyday experiences I have had and observed between staff, inmates, and the public misconceptions thereof. I expect some of you to disagree with my insights and opinions. After reading what follows, your perspective may change or perhaps it will not...
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Corrections Compendium, and The Sentencing Project, "There are now more than five million Americans incarcerated or on probation, or parole. Who are Americas "typical" convicts? They are someone's son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, uncle, and grandparent. They are the largest, and fastest growing minority demographic group in the country. The typical prisoner is poor, functionally illiterate, chronically addicted to drugs and alcohol, and has not developed adequate job, social, or life-coping skills. The typical convict could be classified as socially retarded.
The typical convict could also be accurately compared to a state of the art computer system with a very poorly written, virus-laden program. Even though the "computer" is not faulty, it appears so to the layman. In frustration, we may trash the computer, because it malfunctions, but a wise person, able to properly diagnose the malady would simply install a new, tested and proven program. Then, the computer would function as it is supposed to.
Typical Americans stand aghast as they read, hear about, and see the typical convict engaging in criminal actions. Never knowing all the facts, or mitigating circumstances, it is easy for the outsider to say, "How could anyone do something like this?" It is clear that rational people do not "understand" what compels those of us who commit irrational acts. There are clear reasons, but they are ignored by hard-liners who use the truth of the roots of crime and violence to their own political advantage. Whenever the subject comes up, they ridicule the messengers.
As a person who has lived in the bowels of poverty, abuse, violence and inequality for almost forty years, I can understand what has led to the actions by which so many of us have been convicted. I can also clearly understand the root causes of most criminal actions, and am firmly convinced that if proper intervention and treatment were made, our recidivism rate would drop phenomenally. I believe that because I have lived with society's worst criminal offenders and have come to know them as people. Not animals. I have never met a man or woman so inherently corrupt, vile and hateful that s/he could not be habilitated into society if proper measures (with the proper motives... ) were taken.
I will paraphrase Bo Lozoff from his epilogue in Frontiers of Justice Vol II: Coddling or Common Sense?:
"Most of the people we send to prison shouldn't be sent out of their community in the first place. Incarceration must be a last resort for violent and dangerous people, not a first response for selfish, confused, dysfunctional behavior. Nationwide, nearly 70 % of our prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses. In other words, they were not necessarily violent or dangerous when they entered prison, but they certainly are likely to be by the time they leave.
Most new prison inmates are scared to death, and just want to get out of prison alive! Their increasing capacity for violence during their incarceration is a direct response to factors which are very much under our (society's) control; The profoundly negative tone of our prisons, the dominant note of scorn expressed toward inmates throughout each day by staff and other inmates. The vacuous lack of opportunity to learn responsibility, self-respect, decency, altruism; the lack of safety from predatory inmates and sadistic staff who feel they have a license to go out of their way to further demonize, degrade, and ostracize the prisoners.
In short, we place people who are mostly confused, dysfunctional, and selfish into a hellacious environment which turns their confusion into hopelessness, their dysfunctions into sociopathy, and their selfishness into a ceaseless struggle for sheer survival."
What the public has
forgotten, during all the hateful invective hurled by vote-seeking politicians, is that
the "typical convict" - IS A HUMAN BEING! We (The Convicted People) love,
hate, fear, hope, aspire, and have remorse. We are not the animals so
hideously caricatured by the media. When we become animals, it is a direct response
to how we are treated.
We often hear reports of coddling of prisoners, and that prisoners are just inherently bad! Those are also the two fundamental excuses used by these mealy-mouthed politicians in their rallying cries for more money to build more, and tougher prisons - because, they say, "It would lower the recidivism rate, etc."
Recidivism simply defined is: Repetition of a cycle where a person has been convicted of a crime, gone to prison, gotten released from prison, and then repeated that cycle again. It's obvious that simply throwing more people in prison, for more time is not the solution and it sure the hell isn't working. It's also obvious that "getting (so-called)-tougher" isn't the solution; it only adds gas to the fire!
So why haven't our draconian measures worked? The reasons for Americas hyper-recidivism rates are not that prisoners are inherently bad. Nor are the reasons so simplistic as the current myth that "Prisons are too comfortable, and offer too many amenities." That is a ridiculous notion, based only on political rhetoric - not the true facts.
The greatest contributing cause for our soaring recidivism rates is simply the fact that prisons, despite their new designer coats of paint, are still cold, barren, depressed sensory deprivation chambers, that do little but to promote ignorance, lethargy, discontent and a gamut of psychological dysfunctions. Such conditions only reinforce the feelings of ignorance, worthlessness and social ostracism that got most of us in trouble in the first place. In other words: Current "Corrections" dictates do not correct criminal behavior, and in fact they exacerbate it!
It is common knowledge that violence begets violence; hatred breeds hatred, etc. What then of education? Empathy, and the wisdom of compassion? What of such unthinkable concepts as teaching people by example, as you would teach you own children! Would you teach THEM with degradation? Would you teach THEM, with sensory-deprivation? Would you teach THEM with ostracism? And how would you teach THEM by denying them the very tools, opportunities, encouragement and incentives that they need, to develop successful work, life, and social skills? Frankly, prisoners have excellent learning skills. We learn exactly what you teach us: We learn to Hate, to seek vengeance, to have no compassion, to be full of contempt, to lash out when we are scared, and hurting ... We learn to degrade, to dehumanize, to denigrate. Getting tougher is not the answer...
Many excellent ideas have been submitted to prison officials over the years, but they are summarily denied. They don't want rehabilitation, they want "vengeance", and job-security!
When a good idea comes before wise people, an intelligent person struggles to find a way to make it work, and on a large scale. Whereas the same good idea that comes before fools, is met with immediate incompetence, lack of understanding and lack of confidence. The fools are so paranoid about failure, they can only struggle to find excuses not to try the idea and if the fools are pressured to try the idea, they will undermine it to be sure it fails (then they can say "Told ya' so..."). I wonder why so many of our arrogant fools (leaders... ) want to lead, when they've yet to learn to follow.
The Wright brothers were leaders, and innovators - they succeeded because they first considered all the mistakes others had made, then amended their approach to one that worked! Our greatest aircraft of today are still based on the fundamental principles that were coordinated to work in harmony that day at Kitty Hawk. The same could be said about the field of Corrections, in the future, if the leading "experts" would have the courage and humility to try something that works, rather than continuing the same old rhetoric, with the same catastrophic failures. Unfortunately, they make a lot more money by preying on public fear and ignorance.
The greatest irony is that most people in prison have been brutalized most of their lives - fear, violence, and pain are what we consider "normal." Most violent felons were first the victims of violent abuse as children. For the most part, we are immune to the pain.
I have spoken to thousands of prisoners over the years, and am no longer amazed at how much their stories have in common with mine. I am also no longer amazed at how deeply remorseful most prisoners are - especially the violent ones! I have seen the same guys who are vilified as cold, calloused monsters by the media, break down into trembling emotional wrecks as they talk about their crimes. I get the true stories, because my peers trust me, and know that I understand them. Unfortunately the only stories that usually get out to the public are those that are concocted, or edited by media whores who are only out trying to stir up the public, so they'll sell more copies of their syphilitic yellow journalism. Little has changed since McCarthyism, The Yellow Peril, and all the other boogey-man (person)) creations of our past by those who would rather promote political and corporate agendas - rather than the truth.
It would be too easy for me to sit here and trash the whole system, and all the staff who run it, but I cannot do that either because, I have met a lot of very decent staff over the years; there are good staff, indifferent, and bad - just like the rest of us. We have one overwhelming common link, and that is our humanity. Somewhere therein lies the key...
I believe that to truly find a common solution that will have maximum effectiveness in ending this civil war amongst our own people, we must open our hearts and minds and come to a common understanding of what the root problems are. We have only treated the symptoms, for too long. Though few of the so-called "experts" seem to agree on much concerning the psychological indicators that would absolutely mark a person for a life of violent crime, few psychologists would dare to dispute the premise that most, if not all, cases of drug abuse and violent crime are merely the "symptoms" of much deeper problems - most of which stem from a poor self-image. Miserable, angry, bitter, ignorant people ... do miserable, angry, bitter, ignorant things to others. The following are five of the most common links I have found amongst my peers:
Most prisoners have long histories of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, which has had deeply adverse negative effects on their perceptions of themselves, others, and life itself. Very distorted perceptions!
Most prisoners are functionally illiterate and have very poor, if any, legitimate competitive work skills.
Most prisoners have very poor social, coping, and parenting skills.
Most prisoners have no financial resources, nor a healthy emotional support group to return to upon their release from prison.
Most prisoners are programmed to self-destruct - in your neighborhood!
If a person does not care
about him/her self, then he/she usually won't care about others. If a person truly
believes that there is no hope for the future then that person thinks, feels, and acts
accordingly. So long as these people have the inner belief that they are ignorant,
worthless, no good...they will not do the things, or react the way that intelligent,
rational, self-confident, "good" people do. These are the main
factors that create most criminals, like it or not - it's reality in the first degree!
We are in a treacherous Catch-22. The element that is missing in the typical prisoner's life, and certainly in prisons is fundamental human decency. Prisoners need to learn love, respect, honor, integrity, compassion, understanding, and responsibility. They need to learn how to set, plan and achieve goals. How to be a caring, hard-working husband, and stable parent. They need to learn to function as an autonomous adult human being. They desperately need to learn to care deeply about themselves - which will open the door to truly caring about others and life. The quandary comes when one asks, okay it is obvious these convicts need to learn these things, but...HOW CAN WE DO IT WITHOUT CODDLING!?
Interestingly, my Webster has two definitions under the dreaded "C" word. Allow me to quote the Webster 9th New Collegiate, in regards to this common rhetorical term. Coddling:
to cook (as eggs) in liquid slowly and gently just below the boiling point.
to treat with extreme care: pamper.
Well one of those
definitions truly is accurate, in a macabre way. I assure you that prisoners are not
treated with extreme care, or pampered. The only prisons that can be accused
of as "pampering" prisoners are the very few that cater to the rich politicians,
and corporate moguls who occasionally get their hand caught (publicly) in the cookie jar,
and then have to go do a little token time. The Michael Milkens, Jim Bakkers, and others
of that high-rolling ilk are sitting in their cells getting back rubs from call girls, and
sipping champagne - the other one and a half million of us suffer in ways the public eye
cannot even fathom ... because it is hidden from you!
I do not propose that we take every prisoner who comes through the gate and dress him in silk, and send him to Harvard for four years. But, I do propose that we offer every prisoner opportunities and privileges which are directly commensurate to their desire and sincerity to change. The key phrases are "allow us to earn...." and "commensurate to our efforts."
As it stands today, most prisoners have little to do but go work at a menial prison job - a job that is designed to be run by a prisoner, for the purpose of running the prison efficiently. We are slave laborers, paid pennies a day (literally) and not allowed to have the tools and materials most of us need to give ourselves effective educations. The system does not provide it - contrary to popular misconception.
The fear of being called a coddler prevents any such latitudes from being allowed, at least that is the excuse the prison administrators give when ever they turn down one of our progressive proposals (see Together We Can Stop the Madness, for a recent and typical example). Ironically it is these very kinds of progressive programs that would have the most profound effect on the Criminal Justice System nationwide.
Someone once said that insanity is when you consistently do the exact same thing and consistently expect a radically different outcome. You know ... like if you dropped a million glasses off a high building, one at a time, on the concrete, and of course after the first million shattered upon impact, you can stipulate, hypothesize and just generally assume that number one million and one will swiftly fall to the same foregone time-tested obvious conclusion.
People - I could write reams about many aspects of this deeply layered subject and undoubtedly will before my time is up, but for any of you who are even remotely serious about America's crime, drug, prison problem and want to be truly informed on the subject so that you can act effectively to help change this travesty, I suggest you go back to last month's issue and purchase or check out the few books I listed there. Also I would recommend that you visit the following site and browse around a bit and see what fancy you may find within its files:
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
I'm not here to be
another stuffy statistic jockey, or to try and impress you with my lack of knowledge; I am
here as a human being that has royally messed up his life and is simply trying to reach
out and help others not make the same mistakes I made. I am also hoping that this
site can somehow help make a difference in the big picture...
America's prisons are filled with people whose crimes were impulsive, drug/alcohol related, reactionary, often violent and yes - sick, selfish, and cruel. But then, what lessons are the American People teaching us by treating us as bad, if not worse than we've treated you. What does it solve? Whom does it benefit? If we simply continue to call each other names and lash out at each other, we will all suffer the consequences eventually. The more we are beaten the more mad we become. Together we can truly stop this insanity - but so long as we are separated we truly cannot.
As I reread this I asked myself why do so many unique and beautiful people do so many ugly and hurtful things. Why must we destroy so much, to build so little...
Flaming rivers of remorse flow from the soul of a Dreg...
VISITS Since 1/1/99