Friday August 6, 2010

by dan

I came in to the office a couple of hours early today, since I had to drop my wife off at the jail, where she teaches theater to incarcerated women. I spent the next several hours researching more instances of what Radley Balko (who’s done a yeoman’s work on the subject) deems “puppycide” – watching videos and reading stories, each more frustrating and heartbreaking than the last. I wanted to write a post about it, to follow up yesterday’s entry on Bear Bear, but it’s just too depressing for me right now. I think it’s still an important topic, and I’ll probably get to it next week. But not today.

So, I checked my RSS feed and saw that my wife had posted a new entry on her company’s blog, about her experience today:

I arrived at the jail a few minutes early, bounded up to the visitation desk and waited. And waited. Not too unusual, but I didn’t know the women at the desk today, so it took a little longer for them to figure me out and give me my badge. They chatted, they helped other people in line, they chatted some more. Customer service ain’t their job so if I’m getting antsy, that’s my problem.  I hustle through, make my way to the education building. I don’t see the women as I’m walking in, don’t see the women as I get out of the elevator, don’t hear them coming up the stairs so I run to the bathroom and to refill my water bottle. When I come back out, the officer (not the one I know) looks at me like I’m an alien.

What happened next, naturally, was that the officer insists that, since she’s late, the women have been sent back and he won’t be reassembling them for the class, if such a thing really exists.

Because why should he? Why should the women at the visitation desk help get her in to the jail in a timely manner? They didn’t know if she was a volunteer or a visitor, there to see a bad person, and thus by extension something of a bad person herself, and who’s in a rush to help out bad people?

There are two things that are striking to me about the way we treat prisoners and those who want to visit them:

  1. Any harsh treatment of anyone, whether they’re pre- or post-conviction (as in TCCC), is considered justified. Via the comments from the story from MySA.com, we get ideas like, “If you didn’t learn consequences before jail, then now you get to do so. It is good that the entire family suffers. Perhaps that family peer pressure will help them stay out of jail the next time they think about commiting a crime.” Of course it’s reasonable to be disrespectful of the families of people who are incarcerated, and by extension, it’s reasonable to suspect that someone at the visitation desk is one of them, and therefore unimportant. Who cares, the comments drone on and on, if bad people have to suffer? That’s a feature, not a bug. And if it’s the wrong person in there, or someone who’s not yet convicted, or someone convicted of a non-violent offense, or whatever else, no big deal. Who cares?
  2. The people in the authority position didn’t earn it. You don’t get a job at the visitation desk at the jail by working hard to demonstrate that the community can have faith in your ability to help people get through in a safe and timely manner – you get it by applying. Americans love authority, when it’s on a personal , one-on-one level – we can’t wait to show the guy at Target our receipt before we leave – but we rarely question why we’re giving so much of it away to people, or what they’ll do with it when they have it. It’s the same familiar song I’d have been singing if I were writing about puppycide right now, because it applies through every facet of the criminal justice system – we place disproportionate amounts of authority into people who’ve done little to earn it. Say what you want about politicians, but at least they’re elected. The people at the visitation desk, the guards, the police – they just got hired.

I don’t mean to keep harping on this just because, you know, it was my wife who got sent home from her job thanks to a lack of concern, interest, or trust from people in authority positions they didn’t earn, but these are valid points regardless of who’s involved. They just hit closer to home when they affect the people we love.

But if that’s life for a person who works with a volunteer organization to teach these women, what must their lives be like? Not in a statistics-and-shocking-anecdotes way, but how much of the day-to-day life for a low-level offender in a jail for people both pre- and post-trial must be steeped in disrespect and frustration? (don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time, the imaginary Internet commenters would surely type!)

And, yeah, I do have some sympathy for former Judge Kent and Lord Black, because they were treated the same way as the rest of the people who are incarcerated, and that stripping-of-dignity is an injustice, and injustice doesn’t become more just when it happens to people you feel deserve it.

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