Prison Reform: A Fool’s Errand

Posted on March 8, 2011


Author: Stan Moody

The vivid memory of my interaction with prisoner Sheldon Weinstein an hour or so before he died of a ruptured spleen alone in segregation has driven me over the past year to advocate for prison reform in Maine. It has been a fool’s errand – an impossible and illogical assumption that the same human rights enjoyed by those of us on the outside transfer to those on the inside.

I remember saying to prisoners a number of times, “If you are not free on the inside (meaning within yourself), you will never be free on the outside” – easy for someone who goes home every night to say.

There is little doubt that a death here or there is the unintended consequence of what we refer to as prison. Maine has had a half dozen or more within the past year or so.

It begins at orientation, where slick presentations on the dangers lurking within the prison system are punctuated by one or two events from a distant past (I recall a 20-year veteran Unit Manager emoting about urine thrown on him once by a segregated prisoner). Staff training is about power and control and maintaining both.

At the same time, administration is forever groping for politically-correct terms to soften abuses. “Jail” becomes “correctional facility”; “prison guards” become “correctional officers”; “solitary confinement” becomes “segregation”; swat-team-like takedowns become “extractions”.

The public may, in fact, have it right when it calls for locking ‘em up and throwing away the key. We do that in a sort-of civil way, the incivility of what we are doing being minimized by modern, high-tech people-processing boxes. “You can eat off the floor” is a common description of the modern prison, a place kept spotless to mask its inherent destruction of the human spirit.

Prison proponents advance the notion that prisons are intended to remove dangerous people from society, while serving as a stark warning of the consequences of committing crimes. A national recidivism and repeat offender rate of 70% suggests, however, that once you break the spirit of a person by processing him or her in a subhuman manner, you have created a repeat customer.

The moral aims of prison cannot be met under any circumstance. The longer we in the US continue to believe in such aims, the more boxes we will have to build to house our failed citizens.

Prison has become America’s socialist experiment, where in theory all are equal. In practice, with a few notable exceptions, none is permitted to chin himself up to the curb of humanity.

To impress on guards that they are dealing with human beings rather than “inmates” to be moved like pawns on a chessboard is to ask them to rise way above their pay grade by risking emotional vulnerability. Regimentation encourages staff to maintain a dehumanizing distance.

Eating, sleeping, getting meds, exercising on schedule, worshipping, learning and shuffling between those activities in 3-hour maximum segments is intended less to encourage individual strengths than to keep the masses moving and occupied.
Those who require special help, such as medical services, mental health counseling, job training and spiritual counseling often become nuisances and problems – interruptions in staff work schedules. Those staff members who are mature and professional enough to go the extra mile become part of the nuisance factor targeted for removal.

I vividly recall the warden at Maine State Prison telling me in his second attempt to get me to retreat from raising human rights issues, “You are creating a lot of chaos around here.” He outlasted me as an employee of the prison by about 4 months – “order” restored.

Prison strips staff and prisoners alike of human agency. It creates classes of people who become incapable of functioning in society where more decisions are required than when to turn off the light, go to the bathroom or stand watch on the “mile”.

It is a place where those who are housed and where those who work can succeed only by operating beneath the radar of policies and procedures to interject their own brands of entrepreneurship, thereby to feel human and alive.

The only place for reform is with those about to go in for the first time and those who have recently been released – bail, probation and parole.

Reduce the recidivism and reoffending rates to 20% through reclamation on the outside, and we can bulldoze half of America’s prisons thereafter in 5 years.