A friend began corresponding with a death row inmate in
Alabama and shared the he belonged to an organization called Project Hope to
Abolish the Death Penalty. I was
intrigued by the organization’s title and was not familiar with it, so I
googled them. They are a group began in 1989 founded and run by death row
inmates. They even publish Wings of Hope,
which circulates among death row, the prison and links them also with the
outside world. Given the restrictions in
any penal institution and particularly on death row, running an organization
and publishing a bulletin is nothing short of impressive.
Project Hope to Abolish the Death
Penalty is linked to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group led by activist Bryan
Stevenson, and to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty which
inspires the creation of similar organizations in other states such as Texas,
New Mexico, North Carolina.
These men, and women, on death row whom
we think of as the worst of the worst,
whether or not one believes in the death penalty and I am strongly
opposed, are fallible like all of us, but they are also capable of not only hope
despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances but also of fighting to do
something worthwhile. Their spirit soars beyond prison bars reminding us that
they—as all of us—are certainly more that their worst deed.
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.
Something about profiting from the vulnerable is unconscionable which is why I wanted to bring attention to one of the ways our society practices it. For a host of reasons people caught in the criminal justice system are being asked to wear ankle bracelets. Often these keep them from being in jail while awaiting trial. Of course sometimes people are innocent but need a trial to prove it. There is a catch. In St Louis, the city ProPublica investigated, EMASS (Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services) the company that operates these ankle bracelets is a private company which charges $10 a day and the bill must be paid in full before the ankle bracelet is removed. As can be imagined this can be tough for many. And while being in jail is technically the alternative, aside from the hardship of life in prison, for some that would mean a loss of a job. As we know young Black men are disproportionately caught in this system and that bill or debt can make it even harder for them to bring some kind of normalcy to their lives.
Like private prisons, these companies work to sustain and enlarge their bottom line. Profit ought not to be part of the justice system. And while that may not be the current trend, it remains what is necessary.
Please note, we will be on hiatus for the month of August. See you back in September.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new kind of abolitionists. They want to abolish prisons and those aspects of the government that make prisons possible including having police departments. Of course all abolitionists are not alike and some have more rigid expectations while others seem to have more realizable goals. And neither is it a recent phenomenon. It may date back to the 60’s with the ideas of Angela Davis and with the work of trail blazers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What gave this movement flight however was CNN host Van Jones suggesting several years ago that the prison population should be cut by half. Then he was criticized but things have sufficiently changed he is now hailed. What is new is that many committed to reform the criminal justice system have endorsed some of the abolitionists’ ideas. Closing Riker’s Island prison in New York City for example was once thought ridiculous, but it no longer is. Besides incarceration, probation is also being looked at including the possible use of ATM-like machines through which people could check in without having to report to a probation officer. Other ideas that seem to have traction are what crimes should be prosecuted as well as the seeking of out of court remedies. Still another idea filtering through to a more general acceptance is that the system as it is creates harm seriously mitigating whatever public safety it yields. Those who work toward criminal justice reform from within the system can be frustrated by die-hard abolitionists who would want to not only abolish the whole structure but redirect the monies spent on it. But an outsider like me can be indebted to both for instigating long overdue reforms and looking to continue reforming a system that is no longer serving the society, and much less the human beings caught within it.