Before America was seized by European colonialists, prison reform was already a hot topic. If you peruse the written work of Michel Foucault, specifically Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage Books) you will see that the debate of correctional ethics goes back hundreds of years.
The problem with modern American corrections is that the system was designed with more than one purpose in mind. First, we used to practice public discipline which is not to correct the criminal but to scare the public into not doing those acts. Many people talk of public executions as a solution to crime, let me remind you that executioner’s wore a black hood for a reason, the public hated them because the disciplines were grotesque and macabre. The executioner was despised because the public was witnessing someone brutalize another human and receiving no penalty. Thus, the introduction of the penitentiary in Pennsylvania, 1820’s.
Penitentiaries were introduced because some believed that criminals had no work ethic and needed to read the Bible. So they created a space that isolated offenders to work and read the Bible. Early penitentiary systems were famously silent, by force. America made use of forced labor and eventually designed prisons to house slaves because the American public could not imagine a society in which blacks were equal, even in the progressive North. Prisons became a warehouse for “undesirables” (Angela Y. Davis, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”) and forced labor became a form of correction that the public could witness yet still, the chain gang. Remember, public punishment does the offender little good, it is for the public to see and remember as a warning.
As Angela Y. Davis points out in “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Americans have a hard time envisioning a society in which prisons do not exist. They have been in our view since the inception of this country and hostile takeover of this land. We have been recycling the same ideas over and over again and expecting a different result and I have to ask, who then is insane?
I want prisons abolished, but more to the point I want them unnecessary.
I am working on a book that explores prisoner rehabilitation and introduces effective rehabilitation methodology. I believe that in order for prisons to be abolished we must first introduce a gradational reform process that assuages the publics fear of criminality and its supposed permanence on the flesh. Once we prove that the “once a criminal, always a criminal” mindset is a fallacious and fear-invoking tool deployed by those who benefit from victimization, we can begin to think in terms of abolishment. Until then, reform efforts are misguided and missing the point. Heartfelt…but missing the point.
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Jeff (aka Ruthie) Utnage