Posts tagged with: prison reform

prison-thumbConservatives known for being tough on crime, says Richard A. Viguerie, should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs. They should demand more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans — including prisoners:

Conservative should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.

But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

Read more . . .

Blog author: sstanley
posted by on Thursday, May 9, 2013

Yahoo! Sports recently posted this interesting video about the Angola Prison Rodeo. In the Volume 22, Number 3 issue of Religion & Liberty,  Ray Nothstine had a chance to go to Angola and interview Burl Cain, the longest serving warden. During the interview Cain says:

I cannot change our reputation because it still makes people shudder, “Angola.” Life magazine called it the bloodiest prison in America. And we can’t shirk the reputation because the people who come here are so violent. People don’t realize how much they can change.

And that’s why we really built the Rodeo up and have so many tours in this riverboat tour. When they stop here in Baton Rouge or St. Francisville, they get in a bus and they come here, because I’m trying to get people to see that this place is not like they thought, and that people can truly change.

Nothstine also discussed Angola in his commentary, Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead.

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In September of 2012, I made a trip down to Angola, La. to tour the prison and interview the warden. I authored a commentary in October that touched on some of my experiences visiting the inmates and prison staff.

Cain is the longest serving warden in the history of the penitentiary, a position he has held since 1995. The prison is more commonly known as “Angola.” Cain is the most well known prison official in the country. He is the subject of the book Cain’s Redemption and has been featured in documentaries and numerous television programs.

Cain is well known for his work as reformer of prison culture and his promotion of moral rehabilitation. He serves on the board of Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by Chuck Colson. Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming interview:
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Why is Louisiana the world’s prison capital? Are the residents of the Bayou State more criminal than other people around the world? Is the state’s law enforcement exceptionally skilled at catching bad guys? Or could the inflated prison population be, at least in part, the result of the perverse economic incentives of crony capitalism?
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As a follow-up to last week’s popular discussion (thanks to Glenn Reynolds) on prison rape, Justice Fellowship has just released a statement, “Left-Right Coalition Demands Stop to Prison Rape.”

The news alert begins, “A broad coalition from the political left and right has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to cease any further delay in eliminating prison rape. Calling the high incidence of prison rape ‘a moral outrage,’ Prison Fellowship and supporters from both liberal and conservative organizations unveiled a letter to Mr. Holder demanding an end to sexual abuse in prisons across the country.”

Picking up on a theme from one of our comments, the release contends, “While prison rape is often the subject of jokes on late night television, in reality prison rape is no laughing matter.”

Our commenter is right to point to the cultural complexity of how humor functions in our society. Shannon Love contends, “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.”

When faced with a stark “yes” or “no” choice on the question of the prevalence of prison rape, I agree that most people are not “seriously indifferent.” But as for ranking it as an issue of actionable importance, I highly doubt that the issue is on the agenda of many Americans, even the most politically active.

The work of Justice Fellowship and their allies is a notable exception in this regard. Most people probably just see the kind of “Scared Straight” parody on Saturday Night Live, chuckle a bit, and move on.

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.