Monday, January 20, 2014

Prisons As Monastery Not Dungeon

In my previous post, “Rethinking Criminal Justice in a Civilized Society,” I argued that if a crime does not warrant the death penalty, then rehabilitation should be the predominant motivator in sentencing and its execution, not retribution, not punishment.

Prisons today are merely modern-day dungeons with a prettier face.  No longer do inmates have to fight off rats in dank, dark cells.  They receive decent meals, are provided beds (assuming the prison is not overcrowded), are allowed visitors, get some minimum of exercise and daylight, etc.  Some education is often available.

But the dominant policy is still punishment.  Prisons are a spiritual dead zone.  Except for insuring order, inmates are left pretty much to their own devices; they are provided no direction in changing their lives.  And so despite the fact that they are confined and watched, criminal conduct and gangs flourish in prisons.  They are a breeding ground for a more committed, smarter, criminal.  As a result, more than two-thirds of released inmates commit new crimes, often more serious and violent, within three years of leaving prison.

Is this really what our society expects from our criminal justice system?   There are two reasons why people support the punishment model.  First, it feels right ... the old “eye for eye” perspective.  But I think most people support it to improve safety.  They understand that most prisoners return to their communities within a few years, and people believe that punishment reduces the likelihood that they will commit more crimes after being released from prison.  Also, the theory is that it will deter others from committing crimes to begin with.  But our experience shows that our current prison philosophy secures neither end.

Our society’s answer to this problem has been to increase the severity of prison sentences, even for the most minor of crimes.  But that hasn’t worked either.  All it has done is create even more hardened criminals at an incredible cost to society (both regarding the cost of housing inmates as well as the cost of a continuing career of crime).

No , the answer lies elsewhere ... in the concept of rehabilitation.  Unfortunately, the concept of rehabilitation has been pretty much discredited because it’s just been given lip service, it has never really been given an opportunity to work.  Rehabilitation has to be the guiding principle; it can’t be a side effort in the midst of a brutalizing environment.  And then you have the rants of the right wing who argue against “coddling” criminals.  

In a series of pieces arguing for more emphasis on rehabilitation in The New York Times, the case was made for providing all the therapy needed and all the education desired, preferably within a “locked, safe and secure home-like residential community.”  

While I agree on the need for and the benefit of more therapy of all types and education, I believe that for most inmates, certainly for the more hardened ones, given the nature of their environmental backgrounds, a far more structured environment is necessary in order to ingrain in them new patterns of thought and behavior.  And so I would advocate a setting more patterned after the monastic experience, replete with both a regimented daily schedule and spiritual lessons and meditation.  A repurposing of our existing prison structures.

Why?  For much the same reason that boot camp is necessary to turn recruits into soldiers.  Most inmates, like most individuals, have grown up in very undisciplined circumstances. Although life does not require the discipline of the military or a monastery, discipline in the face of all the temptations and assaults of our society would be very helpful in enabling released inmates to resist falling back into familiar behaviors.

And because most inmates, like most individuals, have grown up in an atmosphere that has created a feeling of insecurity and a negative sense of self, a non-denominational spiritual program including meditation would be very helpful.  Inmates need to develop a new way of relating to themselves and to those around them, both family and the larger society.  

Above all they need to develop faith in themselves, and that can only come from a more robust spiritual life, together with education and various forms of therapy.  As a Buddhist, I would advocate a program based on Buddhist teaching as it is non-denominational and has been shown in numerous prison settings to be very effective in helping inmates (granted that in those cases the inmates self-selected the program).

The question needs to be put to the public:  “Is your primary concern regarding the functioning of the criminal justice system one of increasing personal safety?”   If the answer is overwhelmingly yes, then the future direction of prison/sentencing policy should be clear.  Rehabilitation needs to be the dominant goal of prison policy.

We’ve built all these prisons; we confine all these people; let’s make better use of that opportunity for the benefit of the public as well as the inmates.