As a follow up to a recent post about abolishing prisons, this BBC News story on prisons in Norway makes an important point. Prisons there are beyond what many criminal justice reformers dare to hope for here. The setting is rustic, there are no barbed wires around and the guards who are called Prison Officer Assistants function like teachers, counselors, mentors. The whole idea behind the Norway prison system is that those who are in prison will one day be neighbors and so rehabilitation is opted over retribution, so that when they come out prisoners are better people than when they went in. Since in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years all prisoners are eventually released. Each inmate has his own cell with TV, a bath and a view of the woods outside. They study trades, pursue degrees, take yoga classes, go into retreats when they need to. And what is striking especially when compared with US prisons is that there is no violence. Once in a while an inmate may act violently but the facility has none of the incidents of violence that are routinely expected in contemporary US prisons. Each guard who has had at least 3 years of training, is assigned about 3 inmates, so the ratio is far different than in the US and surely also makes a difference. After 2 years of this approach the recidivism rate in Norway has gone down to 20%. Prior to that, it had been 60 to 70%. In the UK it’s about 50% and in the US it is 68% within 3 years and 76% within 5 years.
Of course this
approach is expensive and that argument may be used by critics as a drawback. It
costs the equivalent of about 98,000 British pounds per person. In the US the
average is usually $30,000 but can be double that in some states. Economics
tell us however, that there are social costs, and opportunity costs, and I
suspect when all these are added together (not even factoring in the social
good and humanity of the issue) the Norway type of prison may in the long run
turn out to be cheaper.
Given the overt and implied racism of the recent onslaught of tweets and accusations from Trump and his devotees and given the ones that are still to come, we can no longer remain silent. We must stand up for our own diversity. I shun politics in these pieces, but this is not about politics, it is about values. We have it seems, made the next election a referendum on Trump. But in this case it is not nor should it be about him. It is about the values he represents, values that have vibrated with many who felt overrun by people of color and by the presence of religions other than Christianity. This is not about ideologies, it is not about the rationalizations some may give, it is not about the arguments the more articulate on each side come up with. It is about finishing the agenda of the civil rights movements. It is about racism and immigration. It is about all those, who are not yet able to put an individual’s humanity ahead of color, religion, sexual orientation or country of origin. It is about what does and will make us into better human beings, what will help us grow, reach out, serve others as individuals and as a nation. Those who seek entry into the US illegally seek conditions other than poverty or death. Is seeking survival or increasing your safety really a choice? It’s not a question of open borders. There are alternatives. But it is a moral question. To those who are so critical of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, I say, what kind of a choice is it when you have no choice but to leave all that you know? I am an immigrant. I know what leaving everything behind feels like. Way back all those years ago that is why people like our family sought to immigrate to the US. Then the US stood for the kind of country that helped people, the kind of country that was inclusive and accepting of diversity (even if at times reluctantly), the kind of country one wanted to be part of. Those are values worth standing up for and our voices must be loud and clear. By whatever means we choose, whatever means are available, let us march, write letters, speak to friends as well as foes, protest peacefully, post useful information, repost important thoughts… Even more important let us vote and make sure everyone we know does as well—because we can no longer remain silent. We must stand up for our own diversity.
We may not know that the capital of Bhutan the small Himalayan country is Thimphu but we more than likely know that it values and prizes happiness. Strange as it may be to our Western values, their secret, or at least part of it, is thinking about death. Most Bhutanese think about it 5 times a day. A while back I ran across an article by a travel writer for the BBC, Eric Weiner writing about all this. I somehow put it aside and only re discovered it a bit ago. The message is still fresh and certainly necessary so I am sharing it now. Weiner went to talk to a sage while visiting Bhutan. Uncharacteristically for him he writes, he confided his problems to him. The sage told him to think about death once a day. He did, and the advice worked. In his piece for the BBC Weiner cites recent studies in the US, one from the journal Psychological Science, which reports on the positive effects of taking the advice of thinking about death.
Western society and the
American culture in particular, shun notions of death. And what is important
about this study and about the case of Bhutan is that we do so at our own
loss. Despite a predominantly Christian
culture, a culture that stands for its message of life eternal, we think of death
as an end rather than a step, a bridge, a chapter. It’s not that we are focused on living, it’s
the way we prioritize our efforts to live, the way we ignore death, see our
life in the world as an end in itself rather than part of something larger. Several
years ago I was at a dinner party and the discussion turned to what would we do
if we had a year to live. Somehow ever since, I’ve incorporated the idea of
dying into much of my thinking, perhaps not daily, but often enough and I’ve
discovered that it guides my actions in rewarding and unexpected ways. I wish
you the same.
I first saw the story in the NYT and then on NPR and The Verge and other publications. I am sure you saw or heard it somewhere because it was one of these stories the media feels it has to cover. Originally published in the journal Science it dealt with an experiment that over 200 economists thought would go contrary than it did, would not reveal people’s capacity for honesty. Some 17000 wallets usually with money in them were dropped in places like banks and post offices in over 40 countries by people posing as tourists. What they found is that people did try to return the wallets, in much larger percentages than imagined. The name and email of the purported owners were included and efforts were obviously made to contact the owners. To note was that the names were changed according to the country. What’s more the greater the amount of money in the wallet the more likely the wallets were returned.
We have come to have a negative, if not cynical view of human nature, which of course can at least in part be substantiated by the amount of violence, greed, cruelty and meanness in the world. But to someone like me, someone thoroughly steeped in the existence and potential for good of our inner transcendent self, this finding only confirms what I’ve long known. I as so many have witnessed the manifestations of this good, this part of us that goes by many names, including spirit or Maslow’s positive instinctual core.
It’s time we change
our view of human nature, not with naiveté but with the knowledge that given
certain circumstances, the good does prevail.