My friend Margarita Mooney, who writes brilliantly about the sociology of religion, recently pointed me toward a post by Bradley Wright on a blog called Black, White and Gray and a response to this post by a woman named Holly. Wright tells “A Story of Turning the Other Cheek” about a man who offers his coat to the thief who has just stolen his wallet. The would-be mugger is so surprised that he joins his near-victim at a local restaurant where they dine together. Crime averted, and potential violence and incarceration halted in their tracks. It’s a revolutionary response to an assault. The man being accosted at knife-point sees beyond the attack itself and realizes that the man who has come to rob him is something more than this ugly and dangerous action. The man who threatens another is so struck by the revelation of his own humanity in his victim’s eyes that he ceases to be a threat in this moment and instead sits down peacefully to dinner. This may seem like an easy solution, but in fact it’s not at all easy to look beyond what threatens and frightens us to search for the humanity in an aggressor.
In her comment on Wright’s blog post, a woman named Holly describes the day that her fourteen year-old son was attacked by a group of boys. He was beaten and needed stitches, and a year of legal battles finally sent a young man to prison. Holly was not only upset about the harm done to her son but also concerned about the fate of the youth who would likely become more hardened by life in prison rather than finding a way to live a different kind of life and cease hurting others. Holly’s sentiment is one not often expressed publicly. We are trained not to feel compassion for people who have committed acts of violence, urged not to search for ways to prevent such acts by understanding what motivates them but rather to label some people irredeemable and never again welcome them into society.
When I heard Sister Helen Prejean speak last week, she told a story which she also wrote in her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking about the father of a murder victim expressing his grief over the idea of the death penalty. His child had been killed by a man whom Sister Helen would later accompany to his execution, and this father–a Catholic–objected to the death penalty but felt pressured by family and friends to call for the death of the man who killed his child. People told this father that he owed it to his child to demand the killer’s death; they said that anything less would be a sign that this father did not truly love his child. This brand of retribution ran counter to the father’s religious beliefs and also did not seem logical to him. How could another death in any way alleviate the loss of his child? How could executing someone else’s son be just or righteous? Nevertheless, the people surrounding this grieving father tried to make him feel like he was wrong to have compassion and concern for the person who killed his child and the mother of the condemned man.
Our popular culture and criminal justice system are so wedded to the notion of punishment that we often lose sight of what will actually make all of us safer and less violent. Youth who enter the criminal justice system rarely escape it permanently. Most folks who spend any time in juvenile detention will cycle through jails and prisons for the majority of their adult lives. This is not because these individuals are inherently criminal or because their first offenses were particularly grave; rather, our system of punishing people in this country tends to mark them with a lasting social stigma. Prisons, for youth and adults, teach more lessons about how to commit crime than about how to build better lives, avoid breaking laws, and exhibit concern for the well-being of others. If we really want prisons to protect us, then they should train incarcerated people how to be useful, productive citizens and community members.
When I express this sentiment, skeptics are quick to return to the idea of punishment, saying that we need to be focused on making sure that people suffer for the fact that they have broken laws. As the child of a prisoner and someone who has come to care about many other incarcerated individuals, I can tell you from close observation of incarcerated people that being separated from your loved ones, unable to contribute your time or financial assistance to your family’s well-being, stripped of the ability to make even simple decisions for yourself, and forced to live among people who might harm you takes its toll on a person. We do not lack for punishment in prisons, but often we do lack compassion and foresight about how our ill treatment of prisoners ultimately makes all of us less safe. If people come home from prison–and the vast majority of the 2.3 million people we incarcerate will one day return to live among us–without hope, a job, a place to live, or family connections, then they will likely turn to crime as a means to survive and as a way to vent the anger they feel at having been held against their will under dangerous and unsavory conditions. Is it logical for us to expect anything different?
What if prisons were places where people learned how to be better versions of themselves? What if the folks who ran prisons taught those who live in prisons what safety can mean in its fullest sense? That would require that we demand an end to rape and other forms of violence inside prisons. We would need to accord guards and prisoners alike with respect and human dignity and to encourage an environment in which the logic of violence could be unraveled. We would have to stop locking up thousands of people for nonviolent offenses and seek appropriate alternatives to incarceration which focus on accountability to victims and the respect that each of should have for those who live and work in our communities.
Thank you, Holly, for being thoughtful enough to care about what happens to the young man who harmed your son and for being brave enough to speak this unpopular thought aloud. We have a great deal to learn from you.