How silly of us to think that we can prepare men for social life by reversing the ordinary process of socialization- silence for the only animal with speech; repressive regimentation of men who are in prison because they need to learn how to exercise their activities in constructive ways; outward conformity to rules which repress all efforts at constructive expression.
What if we had a training program to teach people how to become better criminals? We do, you know. In his 1966 book, The Crime of Punishment, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a critical review of the system for treating (punishing) criminals. Here is one conclusion he drew from his study, “The idea of punishment as the law interprets it seems to be that inasmuch as a man has offended society, society must officially offend him.” In other words the main goal of criminal justice is to exact revenge in proportion to the perceived offense.
In this country we have a criminal justice system which includes law enforcement, the courts and corrections system. Although these titles sound good, in reality what mostly exists is a punishment system. In theory, the system is supposed to make sure that citizens act in accordance with societal standards which are enforced by our laws. In practice, the system mainly provides vengeance on behalf of society on perpetrators of crimes.
All too often in recent times we see police officers engaging in the same violent behavior which they are paid to protect us from. More often than not, they are given the benefit of the doubt and not held accountable when they engage in violent behavior, despite the evidence against them. Courts were designed to help maintain a civil society by isolating criminals from society or seeking programs for them which might correct their behavior. In reality, sentencing is more about what the criminal “deserves” rather than what would change his or her behavior. The corrections system has largely given up on correcting criminals. Instead they are the agency which administers punishment corresponding to their offenses.
Menninger pointed out that there is little effort put into understanding the criminal, “No distinction is made in the degree of punishment for the dangerous, the docile, the stupid, the shrewd, the wistful, the confused or the desperate on the basis of these characteristics.” Instead the courts follow guidelines for various crimes with little consideration of who the criminal is as a person. The main motivation for the system is to exact vengeance on the perpetrator to satisfy society. He also defines punishment as “the deliberate infliction of pain in addition to or in lieu of penalty.”
He noted that prisoners are treated like children, “the prisoner is clothed, housed, fed, cared for, told what to do and what not to do, where to go and where to stay.” We take people who do not seem to know how to act in society and take away all their opportunities to decide anything for years at a time, and then expect them to be able to function in society when they are eventually released.
Menninger also pointed out that it is silly of society to try to re-socialize a convict by “reversing the ordinary process of socializaton.” Prisoners are required to follow a rigid routine with little opportunity to learn how to make better decisions or to exercise any decision making. There is little opportunity to learn how to express themselves in light of strict rules which do not all allow for the opportunity to learn and practice socially appropriate behavior
Researchers long ago concluded that punishment does not usually change behavior, at least for the better. It makes those punished more likely to commit further criminal acts. They learn to become better criminals during their time in prison with little constructive activity available. They often become motivated to seek vengeance for being punished in prison. Punishment can bring to a person’s attention that his or her behavior is not acceptable. Yet many incarcerated individuals have no idea what alternatives are available to them. Menninger sees the appropriate role of corrections to help offenders regain their self respect and learn to be productive members of society.
Menninger did not suggest that society should just ignore criminal behavior. Indeed he sees it as society’s obligation to respond, but in a different manner than seeking revenge. He quotes the 1870 American Correction Association principle, “The aim of the prison should be to make industrious free men rather than orderly and obedient prisoners.” This principle seems to have been long forgotten. Yet it would seem more helpful and appropriate to help prisoners learn how to function as better citizens rather than to beat them over the head for not being good citizens.
Perhaps partially in response to Menninger’s work and also in the context of the civil rights movement, our society and government started looking at the criminal justice system and moving toward more rational alternatives. Alternatives to incarceration such as mediation, mental health treatment in jails and prisons, educational and job training programs as well as follow-up programs such as half-way houses and on the job training arose as we took a reasoned look at the problem of crime. In particular, racism and poverty began to be addressed in a rational way.
Despite this trend, many people resented “pampering” of inmates and saw them as being mollycoddled by do-gooders. The focus of efforts that did exist was mainly on those who had already become prisoners. Despite some prisoners learning from their experience with prison and making changes in their lives, recidivism remains high. In recent years, between two thirds and seventy-five percent of criminals eventually wind up back in prison within five years of release. The common perception is “once a criminal, always a criminal.” People and governments began to see efforts at reforming prisoners as a lost cause and our society swung to a punishment system without much concern for the possibility of change.
In my opinion, efforts at reform have not gone far enough. Changing the criminal culture will not take place based on draconian laws and harsher punishment. The roots of crime lie in poverty and racism with some people seeing no viable options for them other than turning to crime. The real challenge is to change our prejudices and find a way for everyone to have viable options to survival other than those provided by the criminal route.
The myth that more punitive approaches to criminals would make them more inclined to reform themselves too precedence and our prisons began to expand and fill with more prisoners than any other place on earth. Psychological studies have shown that punishment does not generally improve deviant behavior. Incarceration as it stands now is chiefly a school for crime and a place for fledgling criminals to hone their criminal skills.
Some police departments have as their motto, “to protect and to serve.” Living up to this motto is a challenge, especially as cities have grown and become partitioned into enclaves for people of varying social classes. The war on poverty developed in the 1960’s morphed into the war on crime. Yet “war” remained central. Over the years police have been militarized and now are often seen as armies to control the poor. Institutional racism has also pervaded many of the police departments in large inner city communities.
Initially, programs were developed such as those in New York City to empower local leaders involvement in troubled communities develop programs responsive to the needs of residents in these communities. These were soon abandoned and efforts turned to heavily arming the police so they could better control restive poor people.
Have you ever stopped to consider where criminals come from? Poverty, racism and experience with violence as victims all take their place as contributors to violent behavior. All of these apply to the majority of people who wind up in the justice system. If all we do is punish them for a while in an environment entirely populated by others in the same boat, how can we expect them to emerge from prison any better than they were when they were convicted?
Part of the answer lies outside the criminal justice system. Poverty and racism in society as well as their effects on people who experience them cannot be changed by the criminal justice system alone. This is a charge to society as a whole. We need to learn how to respect people as individuals, help them learn ways to emerge from poverty by gaining job skills and then stop discriminating against them because of their poverty or race. It would also help if the administration and officers in the criminal justice system stopped treating their charges as less than human.
I don’t mean by that treating them like animals. One of the characteristics of people prone to violence is cruelty to animals. Perhaps one approach to working with criminals is to give them options to care for animals of the earth as well as for the earth itself. This approach has been shown to work in a few programs focused on those caught in the web of drug abuse. Many of those incarcerated also struggle with chemicals.
What if we taught prisoners how to make good decisions, to anticipate consequences of their actions, how to negotiate with others, cooperate on common goals and compromise so that others can also reach their goals? Does this seem unrealistic to you? Efforts in this regard have taken place in jails and prisons but are not the main thrust of the corrections system which remains more focused on punishment than encouraging changes in the behavior of those identified as criminals.
I am not suggesting that nothing has changed since the days when Menninger wrote his book. Communities at the court, jail and prison levels have developed programs to help prisoners become educated, learn job skills, address chemical dependency and anger issues, learn about society and relationships, as well as transition back into the community. It has been my sense that such efforts have not ever become a major focus of the criminal justice system where criminals are looked at more as animals to be contained rather than fellow humans to be helped to find their way again. That is our challenge.
(Excerpt from my forthcoming book, From Rage and Violence to and Peace and Harmony.)