Lock Them All Up and Throw Away the Key?

“Lock Them All Up and Throw Away The Key”?  Wherein I Respond to This Defeatist Suggestion

By Ken K. Gourdin

Columnist George Will recently penned a column about a program cosponsored by New York’s (perhaps inaptly-named) Sing Sing Prison and Dobbs Ferry’s Mercy College, which helps inmates, many of whom are undereducated (and that’s the understatement of the century) receive college degrees.  Recidivism (re-offending) rates drop dramatically for participants in the program.  Mr. Will’s commentary can be found here (this and any other links last accessed June 23, 2017):  http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/5402101-155/nurturing-our-capacity-for-regeneration.

In response to Mr. Will’s commentary, another poster takes an exceedingly pessimistic view of prisoners’ capacity for reformation.  I replied:

While your frustration, on many levels, is understandable, and while, like you, I have a very strong “law-and-order” orientation, I would like to see evidence for your assertion that “these very same few are also likely the very same few who would not have returned to a life of crime after prison anyway.” That may be true for some; it may, perhaps, be true for many; but I am uncertain if it is true for all.

And, while I do think it is a cop-out for someone to blame his environment and only his environment for his behavior, I believe you underestimate the degree to which environment, such as poor parenting, poor or nonexistent role models, copying what one sees and hears, and so on, may play a role in criminality. And while behavioral disorders are not the sole driver, and perhaps are not a primary driver, of criminal behavior, they, too, play a role.

Furthermore, while, as I said, I understand your frustration, I think your view of the problem(s) and your proposed solutions are entirely too simplistic. While I’m not excusing criminal behavior in any way, I think you overestimate how easy the adjustment is to life on the outside for ex-convicts once they’re released.

At least some ex-convicts revert to criminal behavior because, rightly or wrongly (but rightly in at least some cases), they believe that most people see them exactly as you do, and, thus, that very few people are willing to give them the opportunities which will enable them to succeed in conforming their conduct to the expectations of the larger society. At least some of them revert to criminal behavior because that’s the only way they feel they can get by.

Anyone who trusts runs the risk of being victimized by another person, and, tragically, many will be victimized in awful ways. But even optimism which occasionally is betrayed is still better than cynicism and pessimism which are always rewarded. And even people who have been victimized in awful ways can reestablish healthy boundaries and regain the ability to trust. (I think Elizabeth Smart is one of the best examples of this.) And your broad-brush solution fails to account for differences between mala in se crime and mala prohibita crime, between the various degrees of crime (misdemeanors versus felonies, less serious felonies versus more serious felonies, white collar crime versus violent crime, and so on).

Yes, figuring out how to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the rights of accused persons, on the one hand, and the rights of society, on the other hand, often is messy, difficult business. Still, the constant struggle to figure out where to draw that line is perhaps the most important thing that separates free societies from brutal, totalitarian regimes. As strong as my law-and-order orientation is, even I am not naive enough to believe that abuses of and mistakes in the system never occur,

Your post reminded me of this one from my blog [“These people cannot be helped,” September 21, 2016]: https://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2016/09/21/these-people-cannot-be-helped/. While any analogy or correlation between behavior disorders and criminality is imperfect, the two do very often co-occur, and the attitude you exhibit is the same one I was responding to in the above-linked post. If the measure of civility and decency in a society is how well it treats those who, perhaps, least deserve good treatment, your proposed “solutions” would not stand society in good stead.

My interlocutor replied that the measure of civility and decency in society is not how we treat those who, perhaps, least deserve to be treated well.  Rather, it is how well the society keeps civil, decent people safe from those who are not.  “The more we tolerate those who are not [civil and decent],” he wrote, “the more it says we do not care about civility and decency in society.”  I responded:

I recently read a short interview in City Weekly with the Warden at the Utah State Prison in Draper. [See https://www.cityweekly.net/utah/random-questions-surprising-answers/Content?oid=4912620.] He stated that, eventually, something on the order of 95% of the inmates he oversees are going to be released. (That said, I realize that Mr. Will acknowledged that, additional education notwithstanding, some [perhaps many] of the graduates of the program he writes about will never be released.) Still, as much as you or I might quibble over whether a particular inmate actually has paid his debt to society and with whether he has been rehabilitated, the fact of the matter is, if 95% of them, at some point, are going to be released no matter what you or I think about whether they deserve to be released, they need to have some other option besides reoffending (and, in the process, very likely victimizing someone else) and returning to the environment they left in order to ensure that their basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, and clothing) are met.

I agree with you that the needs of society and especially the needs of victims are paramount, but I don’t think that even those needs (important as they are) are well served by a “lock them all up and throw away the key (no matter the crime)” approach (my phrase) to crime prevention and to “rehabilitation.” And I agree that I should have been more precise: While how a society treats those who, perhaps, least deserve to be treated well is not the single measure of its humanity and of its decency, it certainly is one such measure. And, with due respect, your silence regarding the difficulty of adjusting to post-incarceration life, the unwillingness of many to give offenders the very opportunities which will maximize their chances for success in society, the different categories and gradations of offenses (which mandate that all offenders not be treated equally, contrary to some of your broad-brush assertions), and so on, is deafening.


About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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