“ You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”
Before we can answer the question about how the prisoners are doing, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we care? It is challenging to ask that question because if one pays attention to the evidence, it is difficult to conclude that we do care. As a nation, do we care how the incarcerated are doing? Do we care what they will become while incarcerated? Do we care what happens to them while they are in prison or about what will be their fate when they return to live among us?
This past Saturday, I made the two hour drive from my home to a prison north of Atlanta to see a person whom I have made a commitment to visit at least once a month. The facility is located in a small town that was probably delighted to learn that the prison would come to their small community because of the potential jobs it would provide. There are more than 1,200 men there, and while they continue to have a shortage of guards, there are many jobs to be filled in such a facility. It was placed at the end of a street that dead ends into it. If there were not so much barbed wire on all of the fences as one drives onto the grounds, it would seem like a rather usual institution. The wire is the only indication that the building is a prison.
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During my long drive there I reflected upon my reasons for making this trip each month. I concluded again this time, as I have in the past, it is the right thing to do. The person whom I have chosen to accompany on this part of his journey just turned 39 and has been in prison for 10 years. He has a life sentence. He has hopes of being able to be released someday, but we both know that will not be happening in the near future. So at the present time we talk a lot about how he can find a path to peace in the situation that is before him.
It is not easy to find peace in such an environment. There is violence and abuse in this facility, as is true for most of America's prisons. Many folks who are incarcerated continue to act out and endure whatever punishment comes to them only to repeat their offending behavior again and again. The horror stories about the nature of some of the behaviors from the prisoners and the guards are hard to hear. The strange and false assumption that undergirds the prison policy of punishment as the only way to manage the population because it will keep order is not working for us as a nation.
As I was driving back home thinking about all of the stories I had heard, I wondered very seriously about what we think that we are doing as a nation. We are not fixing anything or anyone with this current expensive system. We have created a system that imprisons those who have committed crimes as well as the ones who have to provide care for them. A system that does not work and we seem unable to reform at any rate that can change our narrative.
When we take a person’s freedom from them, that is the punishment. The conditions under which they live should be humane and should in some way help them to have a chance to see they need to change their ways. We need to commit ourselves as a society to the notion of rehabilitation. This system based on vengeance is destroying us. Our retribution system needs to be changed to one with a focus on restoration. Continuing on this same path is poor stewardship and unacceptable.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.