Where is the compassion?

22 03 2009

I recently read a phenomenal book, Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters) by Wally Lamb. The book recounts the stories of 11 incarcerated women in the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, as told by them, in their own words. By publishing this book, Lamb raised the voices of the voiceless and let them be heard.

The book and the stories within are horrifying, disturbing, heartbreaking, cathartic, yet immensely powerful. It gives a human face to prisoners, people we too easily dehumanize and readily dismiss as criminals, delinquents, unworthy, and useless. Where is the compassion? The criminal justice and prison systems are such heartless institutions. People don’t just commit crimes just because – they do so because they have suffered as victims of some sort and cannot cope with the brutality they’ve experienced in their lives. In prison, they often experience more brutality and cruelty.

These women who committed crimes and were sentenced to prison (some are still serving time, some have been released) have been victims themselves: they were victims of parental neglect, broken families, rape, incest, drug addictions, relationship violence, etc. She may be convicted for murder, but she grew up in a broken home with a delusional mother and went to a school where she was the only lower-class, non-white girl and was picked on for that. She may be convicted for grand larceny, but she had a series of abusive boyfriends and has been a victim of relationship violence for much of her life. They may be criminals, but they are humans too.

I read a very relevant article in The American Prospect about prison reform. Instead of relying on the dominant “‘lock ’em up and throw away the key'” strategy, we need to re-shift our perspectives and our priorities. There needs to be more support services in place for prisoners that will help them reintegrate into society after they are released. There need to be more health services in place for prisoners that will enable them to maintain good health while they serve time so that they won’t be an extra burden and so that they won’t die prematurely for health complications because they didn’t have adequate health care. There needs to be more of a focus on rehabilitation so that prisoners won’t get out of jail only to get back in for committing another crime, and so they can be fully functioning and productive members of society.

Apparently, Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholz has changed the way Kansas does corrections so that there is a greater emphasis on rehabilitating convicted felons instead of just punishing them and locking them up.

Werholz wanted his parole officers to behave more like social workers, not just reacting to parole violations but providing the kind of support for the formerly incarcerated that would prevent violations in the first place.

His reforms have altered the very nature of the parole officer/parolee relationship in Kansas, reduced the number of parolees who abscond or are reconvicted, and are expected to save the state $80 million over the next five years. Ultimately, Werholz wants to drive down recidivism, the rate at which convicted felons are imprisoned again within six years of release.

“What do you do with these folks?” Werholz says. “They’re coming out; there’s nothing you can do about that, so you might as well have them come out the best way possible, which is that they don’t hurt us anymore.” (bold emphasis mine)

There is much resistance against focusing on rehabilitation versus strict imprisonment and punishment because rehabilitation is too “soft”. However, it makes the most sense and is the most beneficial to society as a whole in the long run. As Werholz says, “‘…you might as well have them come out the best way possible, which is that they don’t hurt us anymore.'”

This approach is also more compassionate and considerate of the fact that prisoners have been severely victimized in their lives, which drives them to commit crimes to begin with. If they are victimized further in prison, this can encourage them to commit crimes again once they are released. However, by educating them, providing them with therapeutic support and giving them the tools they need to be productive members of society, they will be less likely to commit crimes afterwards.

Focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration into society is also cheaper for prisons. This new focus seems to be a growing trend in the nation, but not because politicians are more moral or compassionate. Instead, it’s about  saving money. Nancy Lavigne, from the Urban Institute, says, “‘What we’re witnessing right now is this new focus on rehabilitation because it’s the only way to reduce prison populations, and it’s the only thing that makes sense, in order to keep budgets in line.'”

Even if this push towards prisoner rehabilitation stems from concerns about budget cuts, it is a step in the right direction. Prisons should be less invested in punishment and retribution, and more invested in helping prisoners repair their lives.


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