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The Washington Post reported on April 20th that a New York-based human rights group called Human Rights Watch has found that two new super-max prisons in Virginia are marked by racism, brutality, and inhumane conditions, and that, with room to spare in these highest security prisons, state officials are rushing to fill them with prisoners "better suited to less harsh conditions."
In the view of many advocacy groups, including Amnesty International and the ACLU, ALL prisoners are better suited to less harsh conditions than 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement. But where there's a buck to be made in the booming prison industry, what do decades of torture and loss of sanity to people whom we keep out of sight matter to us?
Well, the U.S., already incarcerating at over ten times the rate of any other Western democracy, is rapidly approaching the incarceration of a full one percent of its population. This means that at any given time, on average, one out of every hundred people you attended school with will be locked up. And it means that many neighborhoods will acquire the culture of the prison, widely understood to encourage crime.
One in four young black males is under the supervision of the prison and probation system. Whether or not one finds racism in such statistics, the incarceration rate is extreme. Similar statistics could be found for young poor males. Are we being tough and doing right for the greater good, or are we committing what the title of a recent and excellent book calls "A Sin Against the Future"?
Assume for the sake of argument that prisons tend not to decrease crime, that - as in fact seems to be the case - they do not deter, they anti-rehabilitate (dehabilitate), prevent the making of restitution, prevent reconciliation, destroy trust, demonize groups, dehumanize law-enforcement officials, and cost a hell of a lot of money.
Assume also (this requires a little more speculation) that we could decrease crime (and save money) by some set of actions similar to some of the following: progressive distribution of wealth, honest representative government, investment in education, work-creation improving cities and natural areas and building railroads, treatment of drug problems as health problems, enforced treatment of the severely mentally ill, a drastic reduction in incarceration, programs for reconciliation of criminals and victims, abandonment of the jury system and of the electing of prosecutors, the provision of good public defendants, the banning of hand guns, and the introduction into a culture often called "Christian" of a bit of loving of enemies.
What if this were so? Would the fact that crime had been reduced, that fewer people were being robbed, beaten, murdered, raped, swindled, libeled, tortured, and sued be enough to assuage that horrible sense of wrong many righteous Americans would feel the first time somebody publicly laughed at how lightly he or she'd been punished for a crime? Or would the desire to see the doers of evil suffer be enough to drive us back in the direction of producing more evil deeds and evil doers? I am fairly certain that this is a real dilemma and that we are nowhere near being able to make the better choice.