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The other death sentence
October 10, 2012 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I am 75, so we share a camaraderie of sorts as we compare notes on our aches and pains and medication regimens. They know I understand what it's like to be getting old and facing illness and death. They also know I have no idea what it's like to deal with these things behind bars. Their letters tell of lives filled with daily indignities—trying to heave an aging body into the top bunk, struggling to move fast enough to get a food tray filled or get a book at the library, fighting off younger troublemakers. But worst of all is the pervasive nothingness and isolation. photos.
posted by latkes (77 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those photos are not easy to look at.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:00 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


When a society demands retribution instead of reform, this is what we end up with.
posted by arcticseal at 7:14 PM on October 10, 2012 [41 favorites]


Only going to get worse as the general population ages.
posted by edgeways at 7:16 PM on October 10, 2012


Its an inhumane crime, what we do to these people, locking them up like animals for their entire lives. Speaking as a Christian, there is no precedent in the Bible to justify this kind of thing. It boggles my mind that Republicans or Democrats can possibly justify this kind of thing in their heads. It is truly savage - we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:19 PM on October 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


Speaking as a Christian, there is no precedent in the Bible to justify this kind of thing.

There is a whole world of violence-justifying passages in the bible, but rather than go there and derail, I will say that I don't think the bible has much to do with the modern justice system and prison system (other than swearing on the bible - do they do that anymore?).

I've personally thought a lot about the prison system and I don't have a solution. I suppose the best thing we can do is offer therapy and reform to prisoners, and release the ones who actually become reformed.

But there are certain prisoners that I am not sure will ever become reformed. What then?

I have no answers for that.
posted by Malice at 7:24 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"But Lefty, who was serving life without parole for killing a police officer during a failed bank heist in 1970."
He killed another human being in the course of committing a crime. I feel no sympathy or concern for the rat bastard.
posted by TDavis at 7:30 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


"But Lefty, who was serving life without parole for killing a police officer during a failed bank heist in 1970."
He killed another human being in the course of committing a crime. I feel no sympathy or concern for the rat bastard.


If anyone is wondering how we got into this situation. Here you go....
posted by sendai sleep master at 7:41 PM on October 10, 2012 [53 favorites]


Dude was a 60s radical. It was a politically motivated bank heist. Aren't we always talking about pitchforks and shit? This guy went out and did it.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:47 PM on October 10, 2012 [13 favorites]


Nobody ever loses votes campaigning for tougher punishments.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:52 PM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Dude was a 60s radical. It was a politically motivated bank heist.

He was supposed to be executed, but executions were outlawed at some point, so now he is in for life. However, this doesn't mean he has to be locked up in solitary confinement with no ability to care for himself. He now suffers from dementia (which got him in solitary confinement in the first place) and Parkinson's.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


It boggles my mind that Republicans or Democrats can possibly justify this kind of thing in their heads.

It's the prison industrial complex exerting its political influence.
posted by carmicha at 8:18 PM on October 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


Haas, the articulate prison reform advocate, was sentenced for murdering his wife and children. See Commonwealth v. Haas, 375 Mass. 545.

Instinctively, I feel a whole lot less concern for him than I would have for old Lefty, or other criminals who simply aged out of the business. And yet I don't know whether I believe that a certain amount of revulsion should matter to public policy. (As a practical matter, it will always matter far too much, at least for the next couple of centuries. Because we're Americans, and that is how we roll.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:23 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


However, this doesn't mean he has to be locked up in solitary confinement with no ability to care for himself. He now suffers from dementia (which got him in solitary confinement in the first place) and Parkinson's.

I agree wholeheartedly. If he is in to be punished, or to deter others, haven't we accomplished that by now? All the radicals are gone and we are punishing a man who no longer understands why he is being punished to begin with. If he is in to be rehabilitated, well, that ship has sailed.

Lefty is the rare kind of criminal that did do a rational assessment before he committed his crime. There is a perfectly rational logic to the state locking him away for "life" so he couldn't just pick up where he left off when he got out. Right now, his life is effectively over.

Unfortunately, as the article states, without prison he might just die on th street.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:34 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a crime against humanity, committed by society
posted by growabrain at 8:40 PM on October 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


As long as anyone's emotions are affecting public policy to the extent that they evidently do, to produce situations like those FPPed here, the whole idea that we're governed by the products of the sober reasoning of the Founding Ubermenschen is pretty much bullshit. It is hard to believe that this FPP, in particular, does not depict cruel and unusual punishment.

On reading some other comments here, I wonder whether someone who's done geologic amounts of prison time would be surprised, on being released, at how vindictive and seemingly potentially cruel many people are, and if the general public would compare favourably in this respect to the prison population of yore.
posted by kengraham at 8:47 PM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


I interact with inmates regularly and this is a problem I often think about. For some crimes, especially gang-related violence, I tend to think that people would age out of that behavior at some point (hard to say, since many die or end up in prison). But let's say you released a prisoner at age 55 after 30 years instead of leaving them to die in prison. Now what? They are totally unemployable, have few family or friends on the outside, no home, no money, no healthcare. Sadly, prison might be the best place to be after decades of becoming institutionalized.
posted by murfed13 at 8:52 PM on October 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


There are at least two problems here. Firstly the vast overreach of the prison system, secondly a total lack of concern for the weak, which drives the crime in the first place and makes it exceedingly hard for inmates to support themselves after release. But I think it is not entirely unreasonable to be a little wary when looking at these pictures. There are victims on the other side that we don't see, some of whom did not get the opportunity to even make it into old age.
posted by deo rei at 8:55 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are victims on the other side that we don't see, some of whom did not get the opportunity to even make it into old age.

If you murder me, beat me, rob me, whatever: I do not want you to rot in prison for the rest of your life. In the hot aftermath of the crime, I will want to lash out and strike you down; don't listen to me then--listen to me now, while I can empathize and think clearly.

The criminal does owe society something, but let that something be improving our society and themselves. Give convicted criminals something useful to do while being given the resources needed to become productive citizens.

(If you're incapable of being rehabilitated, the merciful thing would be to euthanize you humanely. But that's a very small slice of a very small slice of criminals.)
posted by maxwelton at 9:30 PM on October 10, 2012 [15 favorites]


There are victims on the other side that we don't see, some of whom did not get the opportunity to even make it into old age.

A big sort of knee-jerk mistake that underlies some of the cruelty inherent in the way criminal law is applied is the idea that acting with compassion toward a criminal somehow subtracts from sympathy for the victim. This mistake is rooted, I think, in pretty serious and unfortunately widespread intrapersonal laziness.

It's doubtful that anything socially practical is achieved by failing to act with compassion toward prisoners. (For example, I recall reading somewhere -- n+1, I think -- that if one includes statistics from prisons in aggregated crime statistics, the celebrated decrease in US crime in recent decades mostly disappears.) The philosophical and moral challenges of "giving people what they deserve" are difficult enough, the potential negative consequences dire enough, and the benefits -- mostly, cheap catharsis and warm fuzzy schadenfreude for the immature* -- meager enough to make it a bit of a fool's errand.

(*Plus also: there are thousands of bizarre, esoteric ways to end up in prison. People unsympathetic to prisoners are knocking on serious wood.)
posted by kengraham at 9:32 PM on October 10, 2012 [23 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot about this too, because I just rolled back on to the "expulsions" committee, and two things hit me my first week, making rulings on the approximately one expulsion every school day that we see: For the first time, I re-expelled a student whom I had already expelled two years ago (the maximum a student can be expelled from school). He received no services, no help, just got in more trouble, came back into school, got in worse trouble, and is back on the street. He'll be doing hard time before he's 25.

In his file, as in more than half the 15 I read and ruled on this week, there was a line that said, "No one appeared on behalf of the student." Students expelled from public school are entitled to due process, which means a hearing, with a hearing officer who is like a judge, witnesses from each side, the family may bring a lawyer or character witnesses or whomever they wish. It's less-formal than a trial; the goals are to ascertain the facts of the incident in question, to ensure the schools followed adequate procedure and were fair (and we throw expulsions out all the time when they are not), and to talk to the student's family and support network and see where the behavior is coming from and what's going on in his life and what placement is appropriate for the student. Some kids come in with pitbull lawyers. Some kids come in with their entire extended family, their employer, their pastor, their neighbors whose lawns they mow. Some come in with an exhausted, overworked, overwhelmed single mom. Some come in with a foster parent or social worker.

But fully half of the expulsions I processed in this batch read, "No one appeared on behalf of the student." Not ONE ADULT in the ENTIRE WORLD was willing to show up for an 11-year-old's expulsion hearing. No parents, no grandparent, no relative, no guardian, no pastor, no social worker, no employer or neighbor or coach. Not one adult for a 15-year-old on track to graduate who was in the first trouble of his career (the principal expelling him (properly, under the rules) asked us to give him a suspended sentence, which lets him stay at school as long as he doesn't screw up again, because he's a good kid).

I also had the uncomfortable experience this week of seeing some students who had been expelled from our district and another nearby district, teenagers still, arrested for a drive-by shooting that killed someone. For most of these kids, their first interaction with a justice system will be the gentler, kinder expulsion hearings. And for most of these kids who are going to go on to get old and die in prison, I bet you look back at those hearings, and you will find a phrase that says, "No one appeared on the student's behalf." Literally no on could be bothered to stand up for this CHILD. Literally no one. A child, in trouble, in crisis, and alone, recorded in cold-blooded language for the legal documents.

First we make criminals, and then we punish them, as Thomas More wrote as truly then as now. And then there's an unholy glee about it, as if punishment is a joyful thing in which we should find satisfaction, instead of the inevitable and probably necessary outcome of a series of tragedies building on tragedies.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:41 PM on October 10, 2012 [507 favorites]


I flagged your comment, Eyebrows. But for some strange reason it was hard to see the '!'.

Some of those no-shows are, perhaps, kids too frightened to let their parents know what was happening. Maybe they'd already learned, no matter what, their parents always side with authority. (maybe that problem is very rare these days. The so-called "greatest generation" were a pack of boot lickers when it came to authority.)
posted by Goofyy at 9:56 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I feel no sympathy or concern for the rat bastard.

That is the most depressing line I think I've seen in this post, or in the article.
posted by ellF at 10:02 PM on October 10, 2012 [13 favorites]


My uncle is about 28 or so years into his life sentence (for espionage - so his crime may or may not have caused real harm to people.) He's at least 80 now. I hope he's on good health because the pictures of the old and sick inmates are so sad.
posted by vespabelle at 10:12 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Some of those no-shows are, perhaps, kids too frightened to let their parents know what was happening."

The parents are notified of the hearings by registered mail and/or by county sheriff giving personal service. Since it's a Constitutional Due Process issue, we gotta due-process-notify the parents, following specific guidelines. We the expulsion file we get the receipt for the service of notice that shows us who took notice of the hearing. It's usually a parent. They just don't bother to go.

I don't want to hijack a thread about compassionate elder release, but the stories I could tell from reading these expulsion reports! Guys, these kids live in a war zone. It's a third-world country. And they're functionally orphans. It's bad.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:17 PM on October 10, 2012 [23 favorites]


Huh. What a radically different atmosphere to this thread, versus the one about the DC shooter kid.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:28 PM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


the idea that acting with compassion toward a criminal somehow subtracts from sympathy for the victim

Although I believe everyone deserves compassion I don't think this is a strong argument at all. To hear both sides of a story and balance sympathy and compassion accordingly is the essence of justice.
posted by deo rei at 10:37 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


To hear both sides of a story and balance sympathy and compassion accordingly is the essence of justice.

What? I can feel sympathy for the victim of a crime and feel sympathy for the perpetrator, in varying amounts, perhaps, but the amounts are not dependent on how much I lavish on one or the other.
posted by maxwelton at 11:08 PM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


How would an ex-con, maybe 50+ years old, support himself on the outside? No one would hire him, in all likelihood any family has written him off, or is in no condition to feed yet another mouth. Who pays for his medical care?
posted by Cranberry at 11:17 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Compassion by definition is the awareness of the suffering of others,coupled with a desire to relieve that suffering. Looking at these photos and the video and then reading the article I find myself filled with the first part and totally at a loss on the second.

What kind of society are we if we insist on continuing to punish those who can no longer learn from the experience?
posted by Isadorady at 11:20 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


the amounts are not dependent on how much I lavish on one or the other.

When a man is desolate because his wife left him that warrants sympathy. But if you then hear his wife left him because he beat her savagely, surely that will affect your sympathy. The sympathy might disappear, or it might turn into sympathy for him suffering from uncontrollable rage, but it's hard to see how it can be independent of what happened to the woman.
posted by deo rei at 11:35 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


The U.S. prison system -- which incarcerates one-quarter of the world's prisoners, despite the fact that the country only accounts for 5% of the world's population -- has almost nothing to do with justice.
posted by scody at 11:44 PM on October 10, 2012 [26 favorites]


How would an ex-con, maybe 50+ years old, support himself on the outside? No one would hire him, in all likelihood any family has written him off, or is in no condition to feed yet another mouth. Who pays for his medical care?

It is a challenge, but it is not impossible. It requires support from society. A friend of mine works at a halfway house for ex-cons, providing them with a safe, stable place to transition into community.

Just because it is not happening does not mean it is impossible.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:53 PM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


A friend of mine works at a halfway house for ex-cons, providing them with a safe, stable place to transition into community.

That's actually a great idea.
posted by Malice at 1:00 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cranberry: "How would an ex-con, maybe 50+ years old, support himself on the outside? No one would hire him, in all likelihood any family has written him off, or is in no condition to feed yet another mouth. Who pays for his medical care?"
Handling that starts in prison. This, of course, requires an actual, functioning rehabilitative prison - not just a cattle pen.
posted by brokkr at 2:57 AM on October 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: I don't want to hijack a thread about compassionate elder release, but the stories I could tell from reading these expulsion reports! Guys, these kids live in a war zone.

Yes, they do. Absolutely. The War on Drugs is us making war on ourselves. Like in any other war, huge swaths of many cities have been laid waste. We call them 'inner cities', to Other them, to make them Not America. But they are America, the America that started to be born in the 1980s. It is a noisome thing we have brought into the world.

It should not be shocking to anyone that we have refugees and orphans. It should be shocking to everyone that we offer so little to children whose lives we've destroyed.
posted by Malor at 2:58 AM on October 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


I will say that I don't think the bible has much to do with the modern justice system and prison system

It has more to do with the Quakers and an attempt to reform what was around long before any of us were 'bout.

It's the prison industrial complex exerting its political influence.

A tale of such - http://www.dunwalke.com/introduction.htm
posted by rough ashlar at 3:16 AM on October 11, 2012


When a man is desolate because his wife left him that warrants sympathy. But if you then hear his wife left him because he beat her savagely, surely that will affect your sympathy. The sympathy might disappear, or it might turn into sympathy for him suffering from uncontrollable rage, but it's hard to see how it can be independent of what happened to the woman.

If the man is desolate, I will still sympathize with him. But while I sympathize, I also will be angered, repulsed and completely in agreement that his actions were unconscionable--they require him to pay a debt to society and (hopefully) receive the help he needs to fix himself.

So you are correct that the amount of sympathy I have towards him will be based on an overall view of the situation. But when I make my assessment, there isn't a "gotcha" as your example relies upon--where we are led to believe the man is a blameless victim and then, gotcha!, discover he brought his loneliness upon himself in the worst way imaginable.

"That man was an artist whose works were rejected; he later committed suicide" is totally different than "Hitler" from the perspective of how you might feel about them, and no honest person presents the former and then springs the latter on you. (I would argue if you felt sympathy for the former, you need to let that inform your opinion of the latter at least a little bit, though. Completely dehumanizing the Hitlers and Stalins among us ensures that there will just be more of them in the future we fail to recognize while there might be a chance to prevent them going off the rails.)
posted by maxwelton at 3:50 AM on October 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


The sad part, folks, is that even if we were to release these folks, many would probably die an even worse death on the outside, homeless, demented, ill, and few services.

This is a sad country...
posted by HuronBob at 4:07 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The solution is to push for social services, healthcare and education schemes for ex-convicts everyone then? Sounds like a plan to me.
posted by ersatz at 5:02 AM on October 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


It's the prison industrial complex exerting its political influence.

Partially.
There is also a very real, very pervasive, attitude of retribution and vengeance running through US society. No politician will be voted out of office for striking a "tough on crime" pose. In fact, it's often the case that elected officials will try to one-up their opponents in the race to be the toughest on crime.

The sheer hate and disdain so many Americans display toward anyone who may run afoul of the law (either through their purposeful actions or simply being in the wrong place at the right time) is utterly pathological.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:11 AM on October 11, 2012 [19 favorites]


but it's hard to see how it can be independent of what happened to the woman.

Why? Why does the amount of sympathy to which a person is entitled depend on their past actions? The notion that human moral worth varies according to past behaviour is often treated as axiomatic in discussions like this one, but it's rarely defended.

There isn't a dispute between your comment's abusive man and his victim, that the latter has to win. There's not finite compassion that will be depleted, with none left for the victim, if we treat the perpetrator humanely. There's just a shitty situation that needs to not get repeated. Retribution (i.e. attenuated compassion in response to some crime) increases the total amount of suffering that happens, but I'm not sure what tangible goal it achieves.
posted by kengraham at 5:28 AM on October 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


There is also a very real, very pervasive, attitude of retribution and vengeance running through US society.

That is a part of the prison-industrial complex.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:32 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I mentioned this article upthread, and y'all should read it if y'all haven't already.
posted by kengraham at 6:05 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why? Why does the amount of sympathy to which a person is entitled depend on their past actions?

Certainly if somebody has done good in the past, you will derive some sympathy for that person from that?

Retribution (i.e. attenuated compassion in response to some crime) increases the total amount of suffering that happens, but I'm not sure what tangible goal it achieves.

Incarceration always requires attenuated compassion. It is impossible to lock someone up without attenuating compassion for that individual, because after all, nobody wants to be locked up. How much we attenuate our compassion depends on the circumstances and motivation of the individual, not on an eerie calculus of suffering.
posted by deo rei at 6:25 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, I'm just rereading Ted Conover's excellent Newjack (I'm staying at my MIL's house in Japan, which has about 10 years' worth of my books and New Yorkers - score! - here from the 1990's and early 2000's), about working as a guard at Sing Sing in New York.

It's sobering to think how much worse things have gotten in the 12 years since he published that book.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:26 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The recidivism rates, contrasted with the cost of the incarceration of seniors; bad stuff.

I don't want to know what the literacy rate is; probably a number so low it would greatly contibute to the confusion involved in a parole/release program.
posted by buzzman at 6:52 AM on October 11, 2012


Certainly if somebody has done good in the past, you will derive some sympathy for that person from that?

No. I'd likely be thankful for the good that they've done, but the basic amount of compassion they're owed by me doesn't increase. Why should it? I simply don't see the connection, although I'm aware it's a widely-seen connection.

The kind of deontology I'm talking about is tricky: the same features that make people responsible for their actions also endow them with such high moral worth that holding them responsible for those actions requires extreme care. This sometimes requires us to ignore our own feelings and pretend as though we had the feelings that a more balanced, equanimous person -- a usefully imagined god -- would have. This is sometimes what I mean "feel sympathy": I really mean "act toward someone whom I am unable to love, because of the limitations of my own emotional viewpoint, as though I did love that person". Despite the difficulties with practicing this ideal, I don't see tolerable alternatives, especially in cases, like the incarceration issue, where there aren't absolute practicalities arguing against this ideal.


It is impossible to lock someone up without attenuating compassion for that individual,

That's a pretty good justification for having more serious reservations than the state currently has about incarcerating people. In some other situations, the impossibility of doing something compassionately is seen as an argument against doing that thing. Other than what amounts to corruption (the profitability of prisons) or vindictiveness and willingness to dehumanize our neighbours, I don't know what makes incarceration an exception.
posted by kengraham at 7:18 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was hard for me to read this in conjunction with Jerry Sandusky's recent sentencing (and screeds blaming his victims and his own son). On the one hand, he's a monster and part of me is glad the rest of his life will be miserable. But I also have compassion for the beyond-miserable conditions in prisons, and I just don't see the point in making even monsters live in sub-human conditions until they die. So what do you do with a crime so terrible that there is no punishment that could outweigh it?
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:06 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No. I'd likely be thankful for the good that they've done, but the basic amount of compassion they're owed by me doesn't increase

That is interesting. Given that we agree that incarceration requires attenuated compassion, which would be impossible or nonsensical under your objectified notion of compassion as I understand it, would you say compassion dictates that nobody should ever be locked up (granting that there may be overriding concerns that would justify incarceration)?
posted by deo rei at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2012


would you say compassion dictates that nobody should ever be locked up (granting that there may be overriding concerns that would justify incarceration)?

Compassion (or any consideration) alone should rarely dictate behaviour. However, yes, in most cases that I know of, compassion is part of a compelling argument against incarcerating people, and the compassion component of this argument grows in proportion to any increase in the cruelty of the circumstances of the incarceration in question.
posted by kengraham at 12:11 PM on October 11, 2012


I apologize if I've given the impression that I think that attenuated compassion is "impossible or nonsensical". I just think that attenuating compassion is objectionable, and therefore activities that require attenuated compassion should not be undertaken without some kind of overwhelming justification. By "attenuating compassion", I mean, basically, ignoring (either negligently, or as a result of some conflicting obligation) a moral duty derived from an inherent compassion-worthiness of various entities, including human beings. The justification for attenuating compassion, I'd argue, cannot be that an entity's compassion-worthiness has decreased, because that is impossible or nonsensical. There may be compelling reasons to ignore one's compassionate duty, sometimes, but one should acknowledge that one is -- perhaps by necessity! -- breaking a serious "rule" in order to do so.
posted by kengraham at 12:23 PM on October 11, 2012


We call them 'inner cities', to Other them, to make them Not America. But they are America, the America that started to be born in the 1980s. It is a noisome thing we have brought into the world.

No. The "inner city" was born shortly after World War II and it had nothing to do with drugs in any way, shape, or form.
posted by liketitanic at 12:26 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


the compassion component of this argument grows in proportion to any increase in the cruelty of the circumstances

Okay, thanks. I must admit that I don't quite see how the compassion component of an argument can grow without the underlying compassion also growing, which is part of why I don't subscribe to the view of compassion as being inviolable (if that's an accurate way to summarize your view), but I do see the value in that position and I do believe there is a basic level of compassion that should extend to everyone.
posted by deo rei at 12:51 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


How would an ex-con, maybe 50+ years old, support himself on the outside? No one would hire him, in all likelihood any family has written him off, or is in no condition to feed yet another mouth. Who pays for his medical care?

This is precisely the argument (well, one of the arguments) for more humane prisons in the first place. Millions of prisoners are not, in fact, serving life sentences; they will actually be released one day. Does it better serve society if more of them are released with the skills and capacities to better support themselves (financially, personally, emotionally, psychologically), or without those skills and capacities?

If we want a justice system that actually serves society's interests, then we have to get beyond Taxpayer Resentment Arithmetic and view prisons as something other than vast machines of retribution.
posted by scody at 12:52 PM on October 11, 2012 [22 favorites]


How would an ex-con, maybe 50+ years old, support himself on the outside? No one would hire him, in all likelihood any family has written him off, or is in no condition to feed yet another mouth. Who pays for his medical care?

i am not slagging on this statement, but it is a statement I am sure some have also used to justify turning prison systems into vast psychiatric warehouses as well.
posted by edgeways at 1:19 PM on October 11, 2012


Scody & edgeways

I agree wholeheartedly with you both. Just letting you know what I see from the trenches. It's hard to convince people to spend more money on more humane prisons, and I don't see conditions improving any time soon.
posted by murfed13 at 1:48 PM on October 11, 2012


It's hard to convince people to spend more money on more humane prisons,

Speaking from a position of complete ignorance, would it necessarily even cost more to have more humane prisons, if the prison system were radically scaled back (but made to function more humanely and effectively on its new, smaller scale)? What are the difficulties beyond: (1) the enormous profitability of the prison system as is; (2) the public's sort of hysterical belief that a reduced crime rate justifies basically anything (as discussed in the article linked above); (3) widespread belief in retribution as a primary reason to incarcerate people?

(I am aware that these are huge difficulties already, but if we're going to talk Social Justice Ponies, we may as well see all the different reasons why there're insufficient oats...)
posted by kengraham at 2:53 PM on October 11, 2012


I just read an article that made me think of this thread: Ottawa prison investigating allegations that guards ignored woman who gave birth in jail cell.

The mother was in jail for fraud charges (forging cheques) and breach of recognizance. She says she told guards she was experiencing labour pains and they told her it was indigestion; later they took her to the health centre where the nurse told her it was false labour. The guards told her if she kept "moaning" she'd be put in isolation. She was put in a segregation cell and the baby, who was in breech position, was born there.
Gionni Lee Garlow was born at 9:21 p.m. in the segregation cell. The baby suffered respiratory problems and the mother needed a blood transfusion, [Ottawa's Elizabeth Fry Society executive director Bryonie Baxter] said. She has filed complaints to the provincial ombudsman and the College of Nurses of Ontario.

In an interview Thursday, Madeleine Meilleur, the Ontario minister of community safety and correctional services, said the incident is under investigation.

“Pregnant inmates should expect to receive the same level of care that expecting mothers in the community receive, so we are reviewing the situation,” said Meilleur, who used to be a delivery-room nurse.

“It’s not the ideal, you know, when a mother gives birth in a detention centre,” she said.
IMO this situation reflects some of the same issues influencing the inhumane treatment of elderly prisoners: the idea that they deserve to experience suffering because they committed a crime. I mean, really--how on earth does a woman give birth in her jail cell without someone twigging that she is in labour? This could have gone so much more badly for everyone, especially with a breech birth. It is a wonder that baby or mom did not die.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:17 PM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The U.S. imprisons around 730 in every 100,000 people — the highest incarcerated population in the world.... No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens."
posted by scody at 4:41 PM on October 15, 2012


"The U.S. imprisons around 730 in every 100,000 people — the highest incarcerated population in the world.... No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens."

Part of the problem (and I suspect this will make no friends nor garner many favourites), I think, is that "rule of law" is actually a fairly barbaric practice, and maybe even a fairly barbaric ideal*. Socially-constructed laws are, with very few exceptions**, things about which reasonable people can disagree, but there is no guaranteed connection between a proposed law being reasonable and it being something which comes to govern all of us, while it is very nearly prohibitively difficult to have statistically meaningful input into the legislative process. This state of affairs doesn't seem to compare especially favourably to some of the more enlightened tyrannies I've heard of, provided I put aside certain ideals about the legitimacy of certain types of power.

Anecdatally, a hyperactive legal system seems to give rise to a population of people who are, by and large, kind of shitty at resolving interpersonal conflict and modulating their own behaviour without some kind of authoritarian intervention -- high school is a good microcosmic example. If, in addition, the law is from the point of view of that population largely arbitrary (or if they had vanishingly small input into its creation), then the situation really is indistinguishable from one in which an "uncivilized" population*** is ruled by a tyrannical cabal. That the cabal goes to great lengths -- 3 great lengths per 400 folks, apparently -- to enforce its authority is not surprising.

*Since, in essence, it says that, in order to secure coercive power over others, one need simply contrive to have some words written in the correct place and that application of the consequent coercive power is then an instance of the system working. I would tend to characterize a system in which coercive power is readily exercised in day-to-day life, especially if it is only available to a privileged few, as inherently barbaric. (Note, I preemptively add, that claims about the barbarism of one way of doing things do not constitute claims that other systems are less barbaric, or that the given way of doing things should be dispensed with, or anything of the kind. If I meant any of those other things, I would have said them****.)

**The proportion of exceptions among all laws would be higher in the absence of a professional legislative body, who will make new laws whether they are needed, and whether the legislators understand the issues about which they are making laws, or not.

*** i.e. one whose natural human self-regulation has noticeably atrophied.

****This obnoxious disclaimer is directed at the folk who think that compassion for a criminal entails lack of compassion for xyr victims, even when the victims haven't even been mentioned. Such people have a Literalism Deficiency.
posted by kengraham at 11:45 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's an easier way to lower the cost of elderly murderers. Make them pay for their own care.

If they don't like it, maybe they shouldn't have murdered someone.

I am not going to weep for the plight of the guy who murdered his wife and kids and then earned a master's in prison, because other people who murder their families might not be able to.
posted by corb at 7:10 AM on October 17, 2012


Seriously? After reading through this long thread, that is your precious pearl of wisdom?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:40 AM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


After slogging through Romneythread, this one seems pleasantly short by comparison. But yes, it is possible to read a lot of similar opinions and still wind up with a different one.
posted by corb at 8:27 AM on October 17, 2012


It is not so much "different" as it approaching non sequitur-ishness in scope with the rest of the conversation.
posted by edgeways at 8:49 AM on October 17, 2012 [8 favorites]



If they don't like it, maybe they shouldn't have murdered someone.


Corb, maybe it's not whether they like it but whether you like it. How do you feel about the idea that the measure of a society is determined by its treatment of its most disadvantaged?
posted by dazed_one at 3:09 PM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Rule of Law makes sense as an ideal insofar as order is better than chaos. Which is to say, it doesn't make sense generally, but does for the sorts of problems that a bureaucracy can solve.

Finding that problem-space is left as an exercise to the reader.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:15 AM on October 28, 2012


Rule of Law makes sense as an ideal insofar as order is better than chaos. Which is to say, it doesn't make sense generally, but does for the sorts of problems that a bureaucracy can solve.

I can get behind this. I even think that problem-space is pretty large, but it's considerably smaller than it is apparently generally given credit for being.
posted by kengraham at 7:54 AM on October 28, 2012


Corb, maybe it's not whether they like it but whether you like it. How do you feel about the idea that the measure of a society is determined by its treatment of its most disadvantaged?

I don't measure societies that way. I prefer to measure societies by their heights rather than their lows.
posted by corb at 1:34 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't measure societies that way. I prefer to measure societies by their heights rather than their lows.

Sure. Why shouldn't a society's treatment of its most disadvantaged be one of its heights, i.e. why should a society get a pass, in your metric, for treating its disadvantaged members poorly? Or do you mean that specific people are "heights" or "lows" of a society?

If the former -- i.e. if "heights" means "greatest accomplishments" -- how do you choose, when measuring societies, what you account for? Does a society get to "drop all but the highest grades"? For example, are the gulags to be ignored, as a low of mid-20th century Soviet society, because you're ignoring everything but Sputnik?

If the latter: seriously? What would make a person one of society's "heights" or "lows"?

Or is the above-quoted thing just sort of a content-free platitude that doesn't even withstand the present comment's weakass scrutiny?
posted by kengraham at 2:53 PM on October 31, 2012


I don't measure societies that way. I prefer to measure societies by their heights rather than their lows.

Hee! Ridonkulous! Awesome response, ya silly goon!
posted by five fresh fish at 7:31 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure. Why shouldn't a society's treatment of its most disadvantaged be one of its heights, i.e. why should a society get a pass, in your metric, for treating its disadvantaged members poorly? Or do you mean that specific people are "heights" or "lows" of a society?

If the former -- i.e. if "heights" means "greatest accomplishments" -- how do you choose, when measuring societies, what you account for? Does a society get to "drop all but the highest grades"? For example, are the gulags to be ignored, as a low of mid-20th century Soviet society, because you're ignoring everything but Sputnik?

If the latter: seriously? What would make a person one of society's "heights" or "lows"?


I think that society (and government) treatment of its people should not get a pass - but that doesn't seem to be what these sorts of "measure society by the treatment of its most disadvantaged" generally seem to be measuring. If others have other opinions, I'd be interested, but for the most part, people seem to be using this to say, "There are people who are not well off in this society, thus, the society has failed" regardless of other accomplishments, or what those people did to have that happen to them.

So people say "Look at the fact that we have poor people" or "look at the fact that our rapists and murderers are treated badly" as part of "how society treats the most disadvantaged", and to me, that seems a meaningless statistic/dynamic that is going to be part of a race to overall mediocrity.

I think in that kind of context, then measuring society by its heights means: what is the height of the opportunities or benefits available to those at the top, rather than what the depth of the lack of opportunities or benefits to those at the bottom.

In the context of accomplishments, what has that society been able to achieve is important, but harder to measure by an objective value.
posted by corb at 10:31 AM on November 7, 2012


what is the height of the opportunities or benefits available to those at the top, rather than what the depth of the lack of opportunities or benefits to those at the bottom.

Those at "the top", I think definitionally, are of less concern from the society's point of view than everyone else, though, since I suspect that the words "top" and "bottom" being used here are basically ends of a continuum representing the extent to which an individual has the ability to meet various personal needs. From that point of view, affording those who can (to a larger extent) meet their own needs extra opportunities isn't really society's project. Why should society expend its resources on providing more benefits or opportunities to those who, definitionally, are flush with benefits and opportunities without "society"'s intervention? In that sense, if it's going to engage in opportunity-providing, then society naturally focuses on providing opportunities to those that have fewer. It makes little sense to evaluate a society on how well it does something that doesn't really need doing, e.g. providing large economic rewards for activity that's not unambiguously beneficial to anyone (even the recipient) while massive poverty still exists.

There are other considerations, though, and other projects in which a society should engage that, while they may provide opportunities, are not embarked upon with the goal of providing opportunities. For example, funding for science or art provides opportunities for some people. It's certainly true that these people don't tend to be those most in need of additional opportunities (although it's not clear they'd all even survive in the absence of social spending in whose presence they survive quite well). The overarching goal, however, is not the economic well-being of scientists and artists, but rather the satisfaction of a variety of human needs that are only met where things like science and art thrive.

In reality, many measures of social advantage are not things that one should really want to be near the "top" of, especially where that entails putting others near the bottom. Given all of the fascinating, worthwhile shit there is to do -- things that don't demand many benefits beyond their inherent ones -- that contributes comparatively little to the suffering of others, jockeying for position on various social-advantage continuua seems a little bit sociopathic.

I guess this is only addressed at one interpretation of the part of your comment I quoted, though. It seems sort of relevant, however, if you think a society that takes pains to treat its poor people, or even its rapists and murderers, badly when that treatment is profitable for powerful people deserves high marks.

I don't see much point in "measuring" a society in the sense meant by the quotation we're discussing, though. It's counterproductive, since some people who are (apparently) insecure enough to conflate negative commentary on their society with negative commentary on themselves take it personally and become hard to engage. My view is that people have a wide variety of rights derived from very basic properties of sentience and consciousness, and the violation of those rights is inherently problematic, and should be pointed out and dealt with. When those violations exist on a large scale, those problems have to be dealt with collaboratively, like any other large-scale problem.

It's actually a very individualistic attitude, that I'm describing. In western culture, certain things like greed or the desire for coercive power tend to be viewed as defensible individual prerogatives when they're not. The reason that they're not is that they necessarily contribute to unnecessary violations of the rights of other individuals, while not themselves being enshrined as rights. Feeling entitled to violate others' rights in order to advance goals that aren't derived from one's genuine rights, is spiritual illness, not individualism, because it doesn't flow from respect for the human individual. It flows from a blinkered worship of a particular human individual, namely oneself.

On the other hand, the meaningful ways in which individuals genuinely differ tend to be expressible in actions to which one does have rights -- free speech is notable, here. These actions can also violate rights, and, ideally, society is about balancing the pursuit of conflicting rights-protected individual actions. It's not about balancing human rights with the goals of people who are, colloquially speaking, sociopaths.

According to that ideal, the existence of poverty or injustice or cruel notions of justice is a problem: rights are being violated. According to the ideal, the first thing to do is ask whose rights are being advanced by the existence of those problems, and whether there are good arguments in favour of the resolution of the rights-conflict embodied by the current situation. The next question is whether the rights-violations in question are happening to advance some goal which is not protected by rights. In the case of, say, privatization of the prison system, the answer is probably positive. According to the ideal that says that society can only permit rights-violations in order to affirm other rights (and even then, arguments must be made), this is an example of social dysfunction.

More interesting is Chris Glazek's point in the article I linked, which asks us to think like a society of the ideal type described above. It tells us that our gain in having our right to not be victims of crime is exceeded in magnitude by the loss of human rights of prisoners, and that we should consider giving up some of our right to freedom from criminal victimization in order to alleviate some of the violation of rights of prisoners. I find this argument compelling since I think that human rights are sourced at a very low level, and don't change when someone does something heinous (and certainly not when they, say, sell weed, which is a rights-neutral transaction). You may not. However, it's the argument a functional society (according to the ideal) would have. A functioning society (according to the ideal) would not have arguments about whether the profits of those at or near the economic top, or the emotional satisfaction of those more socially advantaged than prisoners, justify the violation of anyone's human rights. Opportunities to profit, and emotional satisfaction, are not things to which one has a right by virtue of being a human individual.
posted by kengraham at 6:34 PM on November 7, 2012


(It's an individualistic attitude, and not a collectivistic one, since it doesn't ascribe any rights to some abstraction like "society". "Society", in this model, is just a collaboratively-created machine for solving an optimization problem, namely, how to maximize the extent to which folks are able to exercise their rights while minimizing the extent to which rights are violated. The discussion about how societies are "measured" hinges, perhaps, on how one weights things; the quotation posits, maybe, that it's better to minimize rights-violations than to maximize rights-exercise.

Since everyone's rights are the same, things like enormous, practically unusable wealth are highly suboptimal, because they entail the violation of rights of many people, but, while enormous wealth meets needs to which its owner has a right to satisfaction, most of it is wasted.)
posted by kengraham at 6:45 PM on November 7, 2012


I think I can certainly see how your interpretation would be right for your vision of an ideal society, but I think we have different definitions of both that ideal society and of human rights themselves. You don't mention specifically which things you view as total rights, but you imply that a comfortable existence is a right (by saying that poverty is a violation of those rights). I think this is not a universally held belief. You're moving the bar - by saying that some people's rights aren't "genuine rights", but that your beliefs are genuine. In fact, there is broad disagreement on this issue.

I certainly do not believe that poverty violates anyone's rights, because I don't believe anyone has an inherent right to food, or healthcare. This is also part of why we differ, I think, on the issue of what is needed by the prison system. I do not believe that the fact of imprisoning someone renders society as a whole responsible for their healthcare, if their families are not willing to provide it. I do believe in a right to liberty, but I think that liberty also applies to liberty from as well as to. I think I've spoken elsewhere on the blue about the willingness to accept exile rather than imprisonment for those who violate our laws, with the onus being on them to find a society which will accept them, given their violations of our norms.

In the case of, say, privatization of the prison system, the answer is probably positive. According to the ideal that says that society can only permit rights-violations in order to affirm other rights (and even then, arguments must be made), this is an example of social dysfunction.


Again, I think this is a problem of failed recognition of rights that others see - such as the right not to have one's substance taken for the support of someone who is outside the bounds of society, and has forfeited its protections. Or the right to exist free of molestation or other attack. You feel that the safety that members of society feel is not worth the pain that those who have forfeited their place feel, but I think that this is a subjective judgment, and not borne out on any objective basis.

Thus, essentially: it's okay to have different views, because we're coming from very different ideals about what a society should look like.
posted by corb at 7:07 AM on November 9, 2012


I don't believe anyone has an inherent right to food, or healthcare.

Even animals have better sense and morals than you, vis a vis the leopard seal that tried teaching an inept diver how to get food, or a pack of lions on the Serengeti sharing a carcass.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:20 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't believe anyone has an inherent right to food, or healthcare.

It's perhaps less important what one defines to be rights than whether one feels that rights are at some level distributed equally throughout the population. Positing things like "liberty" as rights, to the exclusion of others, entails the claim that those in worse circumstances than our own have failed to exercise their liberty to the extent necessary to improve their circumstances. This is sort of seductively simplistic. A less charitable interpretation of the quoted claim is that it is borne of the idea that rights are not in fact equally distributed. The problem with this is that it's usually claimed by well-fed people, and one begins to get the impression that these people are prisoners of subjectivity to a larger-than-adultly-normal extent.

I don't agree with the quoted statement either, exactly, since positing the right to food, say, is silly in a genuine famine unless one thinks that rights are enjoyed by particular people only. However, at the moment, the main obstacle to providing for everyone things to which they may or may not have the right is grotesque concentration of resources in the hands of people who it would be very hard to argue are using all of those resources in the exercise of any of their fundamental rights, according to a fairly wide variety of notions about what constitutes a right. Those people are effectively depriving others of their rights to liberty, autonomy, etc., while not obviously doing so during the exercise of their own fundamental rights. Inequality looks a lot like the victory of things that are easy to class as desires rather than rights over things that are, I think, more basic and therefore more likely to be fundamental human rights. (Whether something is a "right" seems to me to require some argument, and in the absence of those arguments, it seems sensible to rate something more basic -- a sandwich -- as more likely something to which one is entitled than something -- a private jet -- more removed from basic existence.)

You can wander over to the climate change thread if you want to see circumstances in which shit could get Hobbesian. If shit gets actually Hobbesian, I am all about killing folks and taking their canned goods. I'd probably even take the non-vegetarian ones.

However, if the resources exist to have shit not be Hobbesian (at least locally), then extreme inequality is nothing other than some folks depriving others of their right to liberty. This is because, at some point, absence of opportunity makes it extremely difficult to exercise one's liberty regardless of one's work ethic or tenacity or whatever. Moreover, existing social structures make it very hard to succeed if one's primary goals are simple survival goals. (The criminalization of homelessness is a good example. There are people who are, legally speaking, not free to do what they must do to survive, including, for example, urination in their home, which is public space. The fact that someone's only home is, not by their own choice, a public space is, regardless of that person's particular reasons for homelessness, a direct consequence of someone else's -- mine and yours, to some extent, and someone wealthier's, to a larger extent -- consumption of resources beyond the level required for the exercise of what I see as likely to be their rights.)

This all sounds abstract, but I know people, and perhaps you also do, who, even by (I think bullshit) standards of "wothiness", "deserve" economic security -- i.e. people with demonstrable work ethics as evidenced by, for example, relatively high levels of educational attainment -- who are experiencing poverty that is essentially unsolvable by their own efforts. I have a relatively high level of educational attainment and work a lot; I also know people experiencing homelessness who remind me of unluckier versions of myself. I have to believe out of self-interest, that if anything is owed me by the universe, it's owed them as well. Otherwise I'm either forced to the conclusion that rights are distributed randomly, or I'm forced to adopt the attitude that the economic difference between warm-apartmented me and homeless them has everything to do with how I've expended my efforts. But I worked only eight hours and dicked around for another eight, today. These folks devoted a higher proportion of their time and effort to their economic/survival situation, by a long shot. The latter attitude is therefore a fucking myth.

I also know people who are materially comfortable -- who have easy access to things like food and healthcare -- through very little effort or aptitude of their own. Material wealth is probably correlated with the successful exercise of liberty, but it's simply not the case that the wealthy are that way only through their own superior efforts, or that the non-wealthy are that way due to some failure on their part.

We may actually have arrived at the original question: what's the justification for a society that allows the arbitrarily aggressive exercise of property rights (if you like), favouring it above the right to be able to make a meaningful impact on one's own well-being? What's the justification for a society that does the opposite? What's the justification for a society being nominally of one type but factually the other?

(What's the basic source of property rights, by the way? More specifically, from what principles does one draw the conclusion that person A forfeits her right to liberty upon depriving person B of property (though only under certain circumstances)?)
posted by kengraham at 7:30 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cursed double negatives. I meant: "I do agree with the quoted statement, to some extent..." or "I don't think that there is a right to food and healthcare, either, exactly...".
posted by kengraham at 7:43 PM on November 9, 2012


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