30 December 2010


PRISON LIBRARIES. When a citizen commits a crime which, upon conviction and sentencing, is serious enough to warrant time spent in prison, that time is seen as punishment for the crime committed -- "the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant in response to behavior deemed wrong .... Four fundamental justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrance, rehabilitation, and incapacitations such as isolation in order to prevent the wrongdoer's having contact with potential victims, though only rehabilitation is central to the concept and none of the other justifications are guaranteed outcomes." (source: Wikipedia)

I would argue that in the U.S., the penal system has never been successful at systematically rehabilitating criminals, nor has it tried to be. If the assumption of rehabilitation is that people are not permanently criminal and that it is possible to restore criminals to a useful life in which they contribute to themselves and to society, then American prisons are a joke. Their only ongoing function is to warehouse criminals, to isolate them from the public and from their families, and to serve as a sanctioned arena for unimaginable brutalization. Prisons are overcrowded, underfunded, staffed by guards who are often hard to tell from the prisoners in their antisocial attitudes, and guided by a philosophy of retribution.

Further, the majority of convictions are for drug offenses, an activity for which counseling, medical assistance and community service are far more appropriate than extended prison time. American prisons amount to little more than an institutionalized crime school, paid for by your tax dollars, in which those convicted of lesser crimes are sent down precisely the wrong path by learning from those convicted of more serious crimes. And don't even get me started on the national disgrace that is the privatization of prisons, farming out their management to corporate interests for their exclusive profit.

In Escape Route, the Surprising Potential of a Prison Library, Avi Steinberg describes a shining exception to this grim picture -- "In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them .... The problem with the public discussion about libraries in prison is that it's the wrong discussion. For over a century now, the debate has centered on reading-- on which books should, or more often should not, be included on the prison library's shelves; which books are 'harmful' or 'helpful'; whether reading is a privilege or a right .... But the issue of reading is only one dimension of the question, and not necessarily the salient one. The crucial point of a prison library may not be its book catalog: the point is that it is a library.

"The library is a shared public space, a hub, where people spend significant portions of their time, often daily. It is a place where inmates work and, in some important ways, live. It is more purposeful and educational than a recreational yard, less formal than a classroom. The prison library gives inmates an organic way to connect with the world, to each other, to themselves as citizens. It's a small democratic institution set deep within a prison, one they can choose to join.

"This is no small matter. The vast majority of prison inmates will eventually be released back into the free world, back into the community. What happens to them once they are out is the critical piece in the corrections puzzle. It doesn't take an expert to know that a person who lands in prison, a person often already on the margins of society, will grow further isolated from the norms and routines of society while in prison. And yet, at the very same time, and in this very same building, many inmates -- often for the first time in their lives -- are also becoming quietly enmeshed in an important social institution."

I hope my readers will read, and reflect upon, Steinberg's article. It resonates with truth. I've worked as a counselor with at-risk youth from the mean streets of Philadelphia, as a security officer and counselor with convicted teen felons in eastern Tennessee, and have assisted with research into the lives of violent offenders in the Arizona prison system. I was also once married to an attorney/psychologist who was a professor of criminal justice, and learned much from her training and experience. One of the things I learned is that the system is broken. The U.S. has a greater portion of its population behind bars than does any other developed nation. Our system of justice is in dire need of revision, including arrest procedures, trial, conviction, sentencing, and punishment. A shift to true rehabilitation, including support for prison libraries, is only the beginning. More fundamentally, we need to reassess our understanding of what offenses are truly serious crimes, and what offenses are not. The "lock'm up and throw away the key" mentality is hopelessly inadequate to the interests of society, and to our own value as full human beings. It is possible to be firm, fair and consistent with offenders, and still encourage them to choose a better path through life.

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