We know war combat and long periods of solitary confinement can contribute to the deterioration of a person’s mental health. But what about other influences, such as watching bloodthirsty movies, playing violent computer games, and living in a country that jails 7 times more per capita than France does and 14 times more than Japan does? How does knowing the poorest 50% of us has only 2% of the wealth and seeing politicians disrespect one another and govern from greed affect us? How do we feel when our system sentences criminals to death instead of life in prison? Our society’s values and actions can leave us feeling proud, uplifted, and secure or isolated, demoralized, depressed, and fearful.
One definition of sanity is to be in line with the society you live in. But I think societies that don’t deceive their citizens, that try to rehabilitate their criminals, and that frown upon violence and vengeance are more conducive to sanity.
50,000 of our prisoners are in long-term solitary confinement even though the United Nations has declared that keeping them there longer than 15 days is “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” In a recent TV documentary on solitary confinement I watched, one young man seemed resilient and thought he’d do fine as he began many months in solitary. He said he’d get a lot of reading done. It wasn’t long before he went completely nuts.
In an article called “Punitive Damage,” in the NY Times Book Review section (5-18-14), David Cole reports on Inferno – An Anatomy of American Punishment by Robert A. Ferguson: “Ferguson surmises that people have a drive to punish, that we are generally unable to understand the pain and suffering of others, and that America’s traditions support an especially virulent ‘logic of severity.’” Living in such an environment also promotes loneliness and alienation, which contribute to depression.
The article continues, “Prosecutors are assessed by their win-lose records, not by whether they have furthered the cause of justice. Judges are constrained by mandatory sentencing laws and inured, by sheer repetition, to the harshness of the penalties they impose. Juries might play an ameliorative role, but well over 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved with guilty pleas, cutting juries out of the process altogether. Prison guards are poorly educated, under-resourced, ill trained and assigned an extraordinarily difficult job. Ferguson puts it well: ‘Everyone in the process of punishing has the courage of someone else’s convictions to fall back on.’”
Ferguson calls for decriminalization of drug possession, expert panels to dole out rewards for good behavior, and serious investment in rehabilitation. He urges us to “reorient our prisons away from punishment and debasement and instead [restore] them through the care and love of others.” He laments our sentences are often two to three times longer than those in Britain and France for the same offense.
It’s not all bad news. The prison population is falling; New York and New Jersey have reduced their prison population by 25% since 2000 with no increase in crime.
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