Swelling ranks behind prison walls

February 20, 2000|By Drew Leder

LAST WEEK, the United States celebrated a dubious milestone: the date when, according to an estimate by the Justice Policy Institute, the number of Americans in prison was expected to surpass 2 million.

We can't begin to understand this figure except through comparison. In 1970 we had fewer than 200,000 prisoners. Now it's 10 times that.

Our current rate of incarceration is six to 10 times that of most industrialized countries. We have more prisoners in one state, California, then do the nations of France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.

In short, we have embarked on an unique social experiment, treating all manner of social ills by caging people. Drug addiction and possession? Small-time dealing? Petty theft? Violent pathologies? Juvenile crime? We put people behind bars for as long as possible, with mandatory sentences that override judicial discretion.

That's how a nation reaches 2 million inmates. I know a few of these people. They are more than a statistic to me. Six years ago, I started volunteer teaching at the Maryland Penitentiary, then the state's maximum-security prison.

It was a world apart from the elite college where I usually ply my trade as a philosopher. Yet our talks were true to the spirit of philo-sophia, Greek for the "love of wisdom." The men in my class craved wisdom as a hungry man does food.

Their own lives had been all but destroyed by the lack of rational thought, hope, perspective, the flights of spirit and serenity of soul that wisdom brings.

But its never too late, they said. Please teach us. We need wisdom to survive in this slow-motion hell called prison, and we'll need it even more if we ever get out.

Tray, serving a life sentence since age 16, took as his role model Epictetus. This crippled Roman slave, a father of Stoicism, said, "Don't seek to have what you want, but to want what you have." It was a recipe for enduring harsh circumstances, pretty much the only ones Tray has known.

Donald told me our classes served as a kind of therapy for him. When he was 12 years old, his father, a gambler and drinker, was murdered outside their house. Now Donald wants to learn how to control the pain and violence of his own inner chaos.

Was there some way I could get him more help, a real therapist? I tried, but to no avail. That's not what prisons are built for.

Charley, a Muslim imam, or spiritual leader, always greeted me with a smile. "He's got a soft heart," another told me. "I'm trying to toughen him up, but he never learns."

He and some of the other men gave me, a Jew, a gilt-edged Koran. In turn, he requested an annotated Torah. We exchanged holy books, philosophical conversation and most of all, hope for a better life. That is, until I was thrown out of the prison for an infraction.

Around the same time, the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, which fund higher education for low-income Americans. College extension programs in prisons closed down. No matter the fact that higher education has been shown to recidivism.

After all, we have no objection to putting people back in jail. It's good business: The prison industry generates $35 billion a year.

And it's good politics for both Republicans and Democrats to look "tough on crime." It just isn't good sense. The $20,000 a year we spend to cage someone, often turning them into a more hardened criminal, might be spent on education (some 70 percent of inmates are illiterate), drug treatment, counseling, after-school programs or job training.

When I hear of 2 million inmates, I see Tray, Donald and Charley. I see fathers, mothers, cousins, brothers and the families they left behind. Criminals are surely in need of punishment.

But they are also human beings, not just animals for a cage. This month, let us hold them in our thoughts, along with their victims, and think together about a better system of justice.

That might be the beginning of wisdom.

Drew Leder teaches at Loyola College and in prisons and is author of the forthcoming book "The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope" (Rowman and Littlefield). He wrote this article for Bridge News.

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