Monday, March 12, 2018

Let's rethink crime and punishment in North America...

There is a glaring gap between the justice and rehabilitation processes in North America and those operating in Europe. This space has previously explored the humane treatment of prisoners in Norway. Just this week, CBS’S 60 Minutes shone a light on the German prison system, dedicated as it is to restoring the individual to the community, while considering the “punishment” to be the incarceration without needing additional abuse.

Conditions inside a prisoner’s room, including a private bath, his own decorations, are dramatically different from those in prisons on this side of the Atlantic. There seems to be a kind of social vengeance inflicted on prisoners in North America, probably more severe in the U.S. than in Canada, but nevertheless, a harshness, coldness and insensitivity that borders on abuse.

Some statistics might demonstrate a significant difference in incidents of crime in Great Britain as compared with the United States (from Nation Master website*):
Ranked 44th.
Ranked 10th. 138 times more than UK
78,753 prisoners
Ranked 15th.
2.02 million prisoners
Ranked 1st. 26 times more than UK
6.52 million
Ranked 2nd.
11.88 million
Ranked 1st. 82% more than UK

Comparing Germany crime rates to those of the United States:
Ranked 43th.
Ranked 7th. 6 times more than Germany

Ranked 29th.
Ranked 9th. 19 times more than Germany

Ranked 79th.
Ranked 43th. 5 times more than Germany

Ranked 5th.
Ranked 1st. 11 times more than Germany

Ranked 24th.
Ranked 9th. 3
times more than Germany
*These figures are based on 2014 data.

While a detailed an academic analysis of this data is not our purpose here, nevertheless, the nation with the highest prison population (among the three countries listed (Germany, UK, US) also has the highest crime rates. And although Canada’s incarceration rates do not match those of the U.S. nevertheless, the incarceration methods fall far short of those in Germany, and in Norway.

What are the foundational differences between the cultures in North America and those in Europe that mediate very different prison systems? In fact, U.S. prison officials have begun to visit Germany for one, in order to learn how their culture and nation treat prisoners, with a view to “modernizing” and “moderating” the extremes in prisoner treatment, and prison guard attitudes and approaches. Reports of excessive use of solitary confinement in Canada, over the last few months, have exposed a degree of abuse that has prompted public investigations and calls for much less use of “solitary”. And solitary is just one aspect of the deprivations, above imprisonment, that North American prisoners endure. Cells are bare, stripped of normal human amenities, decorations, including personal cell keys, a significant trust and privacy feature in the German prison documented on 60 Minutes.

There are clearly different attitudes, histories, philosophies and psychologies being applied to the German prison system, one from which both Canada and the United States could learn much, in order to reduce costs of confinement, and generate both lower crime rates and lower recidivism rates. And yet, there seems be little more than a silent whisper from isolated voices crying in the political wilderness where public attitudes are either dissociated from or unconscious of the current conditions in North American prisons.

Judgementalism, in extremis, describes public attitudes to unacceptable, unlawful and criminal acts in North America. For example, word of “mouth” evidence, on social media, not under oath, nor under critical cross examination, and certainly not before either a trained jurist or a jury of one’s peers, have become accepted as normal in the public reputational assassination of many, especially men, who have crossed the lines of propriety and personal security and safety of many women. And while the subjects of these accusations are not in prison, the gender conflict exemplifies a deeper theme running through the cultural granite of our times.

Only if and when we collectively, socially, culturally, and politically come to embrace the notion that for the most part, the people who commit crimes have already had a gut-full of all of the abuses that can be perpetrated on humans will we begin to appreciate then full reality of their lives, including their misdeeds. And only then will we be able to shed the blinders to our own “colonizing” of these men and women as another of the many abuse of power that are embedded in our “developed” and “enlightened” culture. (Leave aside the sociopaths, the psychopaths, and the sex offenders, for whom neither the roots of their condition, nor the approaches to deal with them have been clearly discovered.)

There are, at its roots, too fundamental motives driving our approach to crime: first, we seek “justice” for the victims, and that norm implicitly means prison, hard labour, stern and hard-assed discipline while incarcerated and few if any meaningful steps to restore the individuals to return to their homes, and begin to function within the society. And second, we do strongly seek to “remove” the problem from view, as an example of deterrence for others. And while there is a long history of stern punishments, there is little evidence that either the punishment or the deterrence generate the desired impacts and results we seek. Capital punishment, for example, has long been proven to have a negligible impact as deterrence, and yet 38 U.S. states have re-instated in over the last two decades. Thankfully, Canada has not restored it, and there appear no signs to move in that direction.

In Germany, for example, prison guards are given two years of training in approaches to dampen down the tension, the unrest, the irritability and the dangers within the institutions. It is very quiet inside the prison depicted on the 60 Minutes documentary. Leisure activities, for men, including crocheting, knitting, volleyball and reasonable healthy activities that men who have erred and hurt others seem to appreciate, not to mention the trust the program begins to build inside their psyches.

Incidentally, in both Germany and in Norway, recidivism rates are much lower than they are in North America….surprise! Hardly, when the root causes of crime are much better understood, appreciated and a vindictive motive does not have the kind of cultural acceptance and application there that it seems to have in North America.
There is also an implicit arrogance, superiority and blind insensitivity in a culture that considers those who commit crimes less than social “dung” and worthy of the kind of treatment that even animals do not deserve. And that arrogance has its roots in a religious self-righteousness for which the Christian church has had a considerable impact on generating.

Original Sin, that cornerstone of religious belief, that separates and alienates all human beings from their highest and best angels and motives and behaviours, starts with a notion of a God that could only be a model of vindictiveness, vengeance, contempt and punishment. Such a God is not worthy of the name. And those who sought to inscribe the original narrative as a guiding archetypal beacon for the rest of human civilization, while honourable in their intent, were blinded by their limited perspective. And the implications of Original Sin continue as a tidal wave centuries later.

Starting from the position that we are all wretched sinners, evil, and seriously bereft of redeeming qualities, without the intervention of God (in whatever form and purpose we conceive that entity to intervene in human life), only underscores a position not merely of vulnerability, but of self-debasement, self-loathing and basically a rejection and alienation from all things good represented by our better angels. Comparison, especially with a deity, can generate only hair shirts, starvation diets, mendicant discipline and all measures of attempting to redeem ourselves from our core evil.
And redemption, as an act of human will (often obsession) can and take many forms. Also redemption can lead to a sense of hopelessness and insouciance that “I am no good and never will be any good” so what the hell, I might as well act out my identity.

It is identity, after all, that tends to have the impact of either releasing our talents and gifts or, too often, of repressing our persons into some constricted version, under the pretense of false humility. And if we were to conceive of the expression of our talents as our insurance policy assuring us of a place in heaven, we are, as usual, bartering with a deity, on our own terms. This identity “thing” so elevated in our political discourse, has become a defining and archetypal concept of contemporary culture.
Identity, as men or women, as indigenous or non, as black, white or brown, as rich or poor, as educated or not, as Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist, agnostic, as gay or straight, as immigrant/refugee or native….these are all merely descriptors that have taken on an iron-fisted chain on the ankles of our relationships. While there is relevance and significance to their import, they can be and often are used as “bullets” against us. Similarly, our misdeeds, especially those that cost us our freedom, ours jobs, our relationships, and even our lives, do not define us. We are, in a word, not reducible to a moniker, or a headline, a single encounter, whether that encounter elicits praise or contempt. Nevertheless, once tabbed with an incident that is out of line, (always another’s line) we must carry that reputation like the albatross around our necks, from society’s perspective. A similar dynamic imbues families with permanent clouds that are encased in whispers like “we don’t  talk about uncle Jack, the drunk”). Our penchant and even preference for “trashing” the other, given the least provocation, is humanity’s blind-spot to our own implications in the drama and the identity we are trashing.

Who of us is free of the same kind of “blemish” for which we have cast the other adrift? Who of us can say with honesty that we feel better for having, frankly slandered another for doing or saying something we find unacceptable and then blithely gone on our way and done something similar or even more contemptible? It does not take quantum physics to deduce that each of the incidents in our lives are connected to every person and every moment in our lifetime, and in the lifetimes of our ancestors.

 And those connections, through honest reflection, sharing and evaluation matter. They cannot be relegated to another time and space, in which we have no hand. So immediate provocations, like drinking too much before committing an unlawful act, do not explain the incident, neither as justification nor as ‘motive’. Even the culture we all participate in cultivating, like a shared garden, plays a significant part in the attitudes that generate our actions and our beliefs. Responsibility for that “garden” however, is generally denied even by the people and the  systems we have designed to “protect” us from tragic events. Replete with flaws, each of us need a more circumspect view of our own “perfection”…and our pursuit of an unattainable perfection in our culture. We are not a “Lexus” culture in the sense that perfection is our ultimate goal. And our obsession with perfection, rather than freeing us, really constricts us from thinking and acting outside the box, experimentally, taking risks, and discovering that our self-and-family-imposed limits do not define us.

Individuals, with all of our complexities in our DNA, our histories, our families of origin, communities and countries of origin and our ethnicities are becoming caricatures of human beings, in the manner in which we are being perceived,  programmed, manipulated and deceived by diverse and self-serving powers in politics, religion, corporations, educational institutions and even in our small work units. And we are especially encased in a vault of social and political correctness for which we are clearly unwilling to take personal responsibility. And that “correctness” is made more accessible and definable the more “labelling” (as if we each have a “brand”) we apply to others. The corporate modus operandi is so prevalent, and so pervasive and so easily adopted and accepted and then elevated as the “norm” that individuality has been replaced by the attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and judgements that are amenable and accepted by our workplace masters. And such parameters designed and applied in the programmable service of profit and reputation of the “brand” for which we work that what we think and how we act become enmeshed with “what would “daddy” think”…..just another application of the Freudian “super-ego” projected onto an outside source.

Whether that “daddy” (or mother, or priest, or teacher, or principal, or boss or police office, or the law itself) approves and endorses our identity, naturally, is a process through which all young people go. And, insofar as childhood and adolescence goes, there is an appropriate application of an external “locus of control”….that is how we learn.

However, relaxing the “external” and moving toward an “internal” locus of control, is a necessary and evolutionary process for which our culture seems deaf and dumb to engage in, and to foster. Power, and the agents who hold it and represent its application, is a very seductive “drug” that grips many, whether they wear law-enforcement uniforms or not. In fact, only slightly less magnetic than money, power can be considered a strong motive for both legitimate actions of humans but also illegitimate, illegal, immoral and criminal actions. And those who feel, believe or have been convinced that they have no power, (or less than they think they deserve) are the very ones who move to “take power back”….as if they were entitled to that power in the first place.

Perhaps if we could/would begin from a different question about any person who is acting out, disobeying, committing acts of destruction, theft, physical/emotional/psychic abuse….we might get some insight into the “history” of the biography that is at play. Rather than beginning with the predictable and condemnatory question, “What is wrong with him?” we could ask ourselves, and then as a society, “What happened to him previously?”

The old adage, “God don’t make no junk” would support such a significant change in our personal, private and public/social/political attitudes! Rather than looking for the “sin” in the act, we might begin by looking for the pain in the individual in question, in custody, in our legal/criminal/social and cultural view finder. Broken relationships, in our early lives, too often lead to brokenness as the only expected and predicted outcomes in later years. Short-sighted critical parenting, as compared with a vision of compassionate support and remediation and rehabilitation, based less on the crime/criminal and more on the whole person, both in our definition of the crimes and in our pursuit of “justice” is already finding resonance among small segments of North American culture.

This space calls on all decision-makers in all organizations, including prisons, courts, legislatures, and organizations that ‘support’ those in trouble with the law, especially the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society, school administrators, medical schools, social work schools and especially religious leaders to examine critically their individual and collective approaches to “wrong-doing” of all kinds and varieties. Such a critical examination would focus not only on the public fiscal costs of our current and historic approaches to the people who are found to be doing “wrong” but also on the human costs to those very lives.

There is a new development finding air-time and space in the United States entitled “treating Childhood Trauma” that begins with what is termed an ACE test: “Adverse Childhood Experiences”.

The test asks ten questions primarily focusing on the kind of family the child was raised in. “Were you physically abused?” “Were you neglected?” “Did someone go to prison?” As reported by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night, the Centre for Disease Control, a high score on the ACE test makes one five time as likely to be depressed and can cut life expectancy by as much as twenty years. Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist with a doctorate in neuroscience, declares on the program: If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of…That very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language just like that as a little infant makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency unpredictability and violence. And so children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.

The program has been adopted through substantive training of staff in an orphanage in Milwaukee WI, and spread to the police department in that city.

Would that all professionals in the law enforcement, social work, education, medical and spiritual fraternities would/could be receptive to such an approach!

And would that potential significant shift become normalized and available to the millions of needy children around the world. North America would be a wonderful place to start.

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