Monday, June 08, 2015

Crime and Punishment

By now you've seen some or all of the viral video of the Texas cop going a little gung-ho on busting up a pool party made up largely of those people. (Check out Starsky's barrel-roll about five seconds in, like something out of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This clown probably practices sliding across the hood of his squad car.)

It's a none-too-subtle reminder of how minor incidents that did not used to require police involvement now routinely involve guns being pulled on unarmed kids, and said kids being physically assaulted by cops. Very often these incidents culminate in people being brought in, and entities and institutions with vested interests in getting citizens on the hook of the prison-industrial complex.

It can result in poor people (and it's always poor people; people of means generally aren't taken into custody in the first place, and when they are, they can usually buy their way out of a jam) being held in custody because of their inability to make bail, and thus have to wait for months or even years on end for due process to run its course.

Such is the case of the unfortunate Kalief Browder, who spent three years locked up in Rikers Island on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Browder, who was kept in solitary confinement for two-thirds of his stay, and captured on video being beaten by guards and inmates, tragically took his own life over the weekend, unable to cope with the severe treatment he endured in New York's Kafkaesque metropolitan prison system.

It's safe to assume that most people, regardless of political sentiment, believe that Browder's experience is the norm, not an aberration, and that very few people would survive a week in a hellhole like Rikers, or any state or federal facility. These are places where physical, mental, and sexual abuse are not just tolerated, but actively used as means of control. Even county jails are no picnic, especially in metropolitan areas.

To assert that bad people deserve to be treated miserably, like animals, is one of the more hideous human teleologies, especially in the US, but certainly in every third world country as well. It is a temptation that all of us, including yours truly, give in to when presented with individuals who commit truly monstrous acts. There really are some folks whom it's difficult to see what redeeming value would be achieved by warehousing them, letting them victimize other inmates and attack guards for years or decades on end.

And yet we have to figure that at some point, most of the people in prison will have done an appropriate amount of time for their transgression, and then must return to what passes for civilized society here. And it's in our best interest to make sure those people have not been traumatized by an experience that none of us would endure in our worst nightmares. Chanting the mantra of "don't so the crime if you can't do the time" doesn't cut it; the time they do is not supposed to include the constant threat of deadly violence, and it's hard to expect them not to carry those experiences back out into the real world.

We made the decision, under the guise of public safety, that rehabilitation was not a priority, that it was more important to beat them down and keep them there than to make attempts to change them in order to get them back on the track of living productive lives -- or at least not victimizing others.

These events that pop up in the news routinely now, cops assaulting kids for getting a little rowdy, kids being kept in custody for minor bullshit far longer than any reasonable person could deem fair, people coming out of the system so traumatized that they can no longer function normally. It would be nice to think that something might be done about it, but we all know that nothing will. And the odds are, at this rate, sooner or later you or someone you know or care about will find themselves in the system at some point, either on a financial hook or actually incarcerated. And there won't be anything you or they can do about it.

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