I have always been under the assumption that the purpose of imprisonment is twofold: to make one pay for one’s crimes and to rehabilitate the perpetrator. I have also held close the concept that crime and punishment must be carried out with justice and mercy in mind.
It is time . . .
We can go back millennia to find the many discrete ideas that divergent societies discovered to pursue and implement this challenging and often controversial goal. Interestingly enough, the Old Testament speaks of Cities of Refuge where criminals could live (under protection and supervision) and be able to support themselves (but could never leave the confines of those special communities). This notion is certainly a paradigm for mercy.
Furthermore, the more modern interpretation of “an eye for an eye” is really a perverse reading of the dictates of God to Moses and of the New Testament rendering byMatthew. It was never meant to insinuate that a murderer should be murdered—rather, it strove for a logical, sensible balance. It also strove to accomplish the reasonable and pragmatic goal of restitution (our contemporary idea of Restorative Justice)--an essential ingredient for making amends.
Even OldMother Russia enacted similar measures by sending many of its convicts to Siberia—a god-forsaken place and far from the madding crowd—but also a place where families could join them, where the convict could work and live but not be able to leave until his term was finished.
I mention these examples because it seems to me there was an effort, a consideration that the punishment should be equal to the crime and that rehabilitation was possible.
. . . that we consider . . .
What I am seeing now is how perverse our prison system has become. It is not (if it ever was) about justice and mercy. The blind-folded Lady Justice(through no fault of her own) seems to be tipping the scales favoring some but censuring others.
Periodically we, as a society, deign to discuss (when there seems to be no other choice) the inequities and disproportion in arrests and sentencing in certain communities, especially when we see a major and “obvious” injustice being perpetrated. Maybe because of social media and the news media and their instant, often incessant, reporting around the clock, we simply are more aware of the ugliness from which we too often try to hide or even deny.
If we are not already jaded, we are on occasion astonished and enraged. Then we demonstrate and try to change laws to make them and their enforcement fairer—actions that make us feel better about ourselves. Yet, too often, there is not follow-through and the rage of the moment evaporates with time.
. . . a more humane way . . .
Despite all this, there is one part of the “justice system” which still seems disparate. I have long been working with prisoners and have become increasingly enlightened—though I have much more to learn. In doing so, I have helped start a prisoner-written series (which is being published) that offers the kind of insight of which we, for the most part, have been unaware.
I have seen a repeated theme. Young boys, in particular, have grown up in dysfunctional homes where they have witnessed and been victims of unspeakable acts to which no person, let alone a child, should be exposed—alcoholic, drunk, drug-addicted parents; one or both parents having a prison record or serving time in jail; parents willing to introduce their own children to a life of crime; physical and psychological abuse of their mothers and themselves; being victims of incest or other sexual abuse and exploitation.
Many such young victims leave these homes, seeking a “family” in which they are esteemed and cared for, where they feel important, where they can rise to an enviable position, and where they know their “brothers and sisters” will gladly have their back--but also where there is a price to pay! Many of these young people come to idealize their surrogate fathers and are eager to emulate their ways in order to feel loved and to fit in—to belong. The consequence for such idolatry is their unquestioning, unflinching obedience and allegiance—they must be willing and ready to do whatever they are ordered to do (even if it is against whatever conscience they have left).
. . . of treating those . . .
One-by-one, these young perpetrators find themselves in a gang, robbing a liquor store and killing the unwitting cashier who resists their criminal advances; or, under other circumstances (perhaps at a party), they jump in to defend the friend who is being confronted and kill the “evil” assailant.
Then they are eventually caught and punished for their indefensible crimes, given 25 years to life, and face the reality of the life they have thrown away. Once in prison, their behaviors frequently follow them. Many feel the same need to fit in and thus join a prison gang for the sense of family and protection.
Eventually, however, (surprisingly or not) greater and greater numbers of such inmates find themselves rejecting the “life” with all of its ramifications (often after many years of incarceration during which they have been victimized all over again--by being raped or stabbed or extorted or threatened and in fear of their very lives—or all of the above).
. . . who fill the leagues . . .
It is these people with whom I greatly empathize and sympathize. Incarcerated at 16 or 17, many have spent years on the road to rehabilitation (instead of further destruction)—a road on which they find their true selves, understand the nature of their crimes, and become genuinely remorseful and contrite. They have learned how to be accountable for the transgressions of their youth and no longer blame others for their offenses, regardless of their own earlier circumstances.
. . . of the reformed incarcerated, . . .
Part of Restorative Justice is the genuine effort by the offender to make amends for the crimes perpetrated without asking for forgiveness (which is so gratuitous).
I have gotten to know so many young men who fill this category. They fully subscribe to the concept of Restorative Justice; they are mentors in the Juvenile Diversion Programs to help at-risk young men (their former selves) follow a better path, filled with honesty and integrity. Many turn to religion and even minister to other inmates to help assuage their mental suffering and to offer hope.
Many have become Certified Drug Counsellors and/or have earned advanced college degrees (we often hear of the prison lawyer). Many, in fact, have become attorneys with plans to advocate for young people on the outside who deserve a second chance.
. . . deserving their own second chance!
What about the victims and their families and friends? you may well ask. Part of Restorative Justice is the genuine effort by the offender to make amends for the crimes perpetrated without asking for forgiveness (which is so gratuitous). It is about taking responsibility and being given the opportunity to make better the circumstances in which the remaining loved ones find themselves.
History cannot be changed and the deaths cannot be erased. But both sides of the crime equation can work to ameliorate the new circumstances in which they find themselves and mitigate the pain surrounding them—past and present. The outcome can only be beneficial to both sides and to Society in general.
My point? I want to advocate for something new, to encourage a perhaps novel way of thinking. If a young man (or woman) has committed a murder as a teenager and has maintained an exemplary record within “the system” for at least 25 years, has earned the respect and admiration of those staffers inside (or counsellors outside) who have worked closely with these inmates and have recognized their positive attributes and transformation, serious considerationshould be given for their release (perhaps under lifetime probation) to be able, this time, to make a positive mark and be given the chance to makes themselves better people and to make the world a better place.
There is good and goodness to be found in each of us—worthy of discovery, exploration, and manifestation. Perhaps, in the final analysis, we all deserve second chances.