f r o m t h e i n s i d e
with Anthony Lee Brown
Attempting to address crime prevention through the present prison system is analogous to solving the problem of teen pregnancy by preaching abstinence in the abortion clinics. As loathe as I am to equate these examples, crime and unwed teen pregnancy both spring from the same place: the nexus of ignorance and the undeveloped human character. If you do not want children to commit crimes when they grow up, teach them, as children, the value of being honest, trustworthy, and truthful. If you do not want them to become unwed parents, teach them, before puberty, to be empathetic, modest, and chaste. It is as simple and complex as that.
It is the responsibility of parents to nurture the spiritual nature of their children, to guide the childs development of praiseworthy qualities through close observation of their behaviors, encouraging and rewarding positive actions and discouraging those that are detrimental or unhealthy. This is how we learn as children to be respectful, to tell the truth, not to steal, to share, to be kind, etc. Crime and the concept of "crime prevention" exist in the vacuum of undeveloped capacities for those characteristic behaviors.
In the economic reality of my generation, and of those since, a growing number of children have been raised in homes where it has been necessary for both parents to maintain employment, or quite often, in single-parent homes of working, but divorced or unmarried, parents. In these circumstances, much of the responsibility for raising children is being passed to daycare providers, whose abilities are limited to providing shelter, entertainment, and supervision for children in the temporary absence of parents, and the public school system, best suited to the task of disseminating a broad range of material and scientific fact, but not the close observation and supervision required to guide and nurture individual character development.
It may be the responsibility of government to assure that an education is available to all its citizens, but its lack of capacity for parenthood and for inspiring upright characters in the young is evidenced by our burgeoning prison systems. Indeed, some states no spend more on prisons alone than their public school systems, and most, if not all, expend more resources on law enforcement, the judicial process, and corrections than on education. Further, the inability of the present public school system to address the promulgation of belief systems or social customs in a society as diverse as ours is evident in the continuous court battles over classroom prayer and the teaching of evolution and sex education, and in the racial and economic discrimination of their funding.
More evidence that parents have relinquished or abdicated at least some responsibility for child rearing is found in demands for government control over the content of print media, television programming, and the Internet. Rather than personally supervise the activities of their children and restricting access to materials or information that may be inappropriate, they would surrender fundamental rights and liberties to the government.
One may rationalize the failure of instilling essential spiritual characteristics in children due to the exigencies of time and circumstance, i.e. single parent households, the necessity for all parents to be employed, the lack of extended family members to assist in child rearing, etc., but it remains a failure for which a toll will inevitably be paid by all concerned, including the person possessing the undeveloped or malformed character, those they harm, the families of both, and the community at large. Education is the key to crime prevention and crime: education of children before, and adults after, undeveloped or malformed characters become manifest in criminal behavior.
Regardless the circumstances of the development of ones character, once the individual is old enough to negatively exert his or her will outside the home, to exhibit the lack of development of positive characteristics and qualities to the detriment of others, then there must be some wider social response to those actions. Presently, that response is generated by the Judicial and Corrections system in the form of monetary fines, limited community service, police supervision (probation and parole), and short term incarceration at the lower end of the spectrum, and long term incarceration and death at the other end, with incarceration becoming the response to an ever-widening range of infractions. Only those who are ignorant of the process will deny that entry into the "correctional" system via imprisonment most often leads to further imprisonment, quite often for additional and more serious offenses. Recidivism rates vary between 60% and 80% among the states, and America leads the world in imprisoning its citizens, ahead of even fundamentalist Iran, the former communist Soviet Union, and South Africa at the height of apartheid oppression.
Justice is raised upon the twin pillars of punishment and reward, and no doubt crimes must be punished, but I believe we, as a society, have lost sight of justice altogether, and replaced it with a vision remarkably similar to retribution and vengeance, as opposed to reparation and vindication. That a response to a crime is necessary is undeniable, however a response that does not address the dysfunctioning human character not only serves to cultivate further deterioration of that character, but perpetuates it, and increases the incidence and, in many cases, elevates the seriousness of harmful behavior. This is what presently occurs in the "punishment" model of Corrections, so hotly pursued by politicians and the public alike, with its longer and longer terms of imprisonment, mandatory minimum sentences, the eradication of education and vocational training programs, no-frills prison legislation, and the use of prisoners in cheap labor schemes for governmental and private business concerns. All may appeal to our baser emotions and even appear to be satisfactory solutions in the short term, but in reality they provide only temporary respite from predation, are not intended to address the founding causes of crime, and, in the end, only compound the communitys predicament. Most important, and at failures root, there is healing for no one, not the victim, the victimizer, nor the community.
Healing is essential in addressing both crime and crime prevention: for the victim, it may facilitate the deepening of the qualities of empathy, mercy, and forgiveness and, in the expression of those characteristics under the most dire of circumstances, the enlightenment of others. or the one committing a crime against another, it may be the very discovery and transformation of his spiritual nature, but necessarily entails the development of positive qualities, such as compassion, honesty and trustworthiness, allowing for a productive lifetime of benefit to others, rather than an unhappy and detrimental life. For the community, healing permits movement and progress beyond personal tragedy, allows its attention to be focused on the welfare of all its citizens and its resources on improving its social institutions, rather than their expenditure upon an ever-consuming, ever-broadening circle of suffering.
With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.1
Education is the key, not length of sentences, austerity of living conditions, nor the infliction of further physical and emotional harm. With education comes understanding, with understanding comes healing, growth, and progress. What is required are not greater expenditures of resources on creating more efficient ways to incarcerate and chain, to deliver disabling gas and electric shocks, to humiliate and denigrate, but, instead, on more creative methods of teaching, providing surroundings and circumstances (at home, in places of education, and in prisons) that foster and enhance the development of our higher natures, and by supporting programs that educate parents in the child development process and allow them to be with their children during their earliest, most formative years.
Just as education and nurturing environments are key to developing upright characters in children, so it is with correcting the malformed and defective character in adults. Educational endeavors in Corrections systems will be futile unless sentences, living conditions, and physical and emotional stressors are addressed, such address perhaps made integral to the learning process, and the overall environment molded to support those efforts. There may be some short term benefit to classes, presentations, and exercises that educate and facilitate the development of spiritual characteristics, but what confirmation and deepening of those characteristics can be expected if those benefactors of newly understood spiritual capacities if they are returned to endless sentences in harsh, overcrowded, under-served institutions that do not promote or support the development of those characteristics, much less encourage familial bonds and ties to the community?
The futility of a piecemeal approach to correcting character flaws, as opposed to a strategy that addresses the entire person, the correctional processes, and his relationship to the community, can be seen in activities for prisoners sponsored by outside groups and organizations. They are sometimes classes, such as the "Hands of Peace," a program designed to teach communication skills, but more often they are presentations by church choirs and sermons by ministers or ex-convict evangelicals of the Protestant Christian sects. Frequently, all other institution and recreational activities will be preempted to shift available space, staff, and equipment to their use to assure a good turn out. As it unfolds, all who attend may be uplifted and made joyous, and may even, as a result, gain some level of illumination about a truth or an aspect of the unseen, spiritual reality. But then that attendee must return to conditions and circumstances that are not conducive to confirming, maintaining, or further developing the understanding or illumination garnered in that gathering, presentation, or class. The return to conditions that, in fact, foster character deterioration, spiritual degradation, emotional desolation, mental deformation, all of which are evidenced by current rates of recidivism, and the general failure of ex-prisoners to be reintegrated into normal society, achieve professional standing, or attain financial success.
The definition of "crime prevention" devolves to mere defensive strategies and deterring children from taking paths to crime as adults is unnecessary if childrens innate capacities for spiritual qualities and characteristics are nurtured and developed. In the adult, crime prevention is best addressed by correcting the defects of character that enable or cause criminal behavior, and this concept is most easily understood when viewed as the healing of that character or spirit by nurturing in it the same qualities and characteristics we desire to develop in children. To that end, imprisonment may be necessary to protect society, but the term and conditions of imprisonment must be bound to the educational and healing processes in such a way that the criminal graduates from the most restrictive and least self-responsible environment to the least restrictive and most community-like environment as his character, social abilities, and employment skills develop.
In twenty-one years of continuous incarceration I have learned to paint and write, but have never seen my pictures framed or my words read under a corner table lamp. I have learned trade craft as a paralegal, in computer electronics and programming, in Computer Aided Drafting and Design, and even in diagnostic radiologic technology, but have never been allowed to hold a single dollar bill I have earned, practice those trades outside these walls, nor been permitted to maintain those skills on a level synonymous with advances in technology. I have taken parenting classes, but never been allowed to be a father to my daughters, both of whom have been raised single-handedly by their mother. I have found the love and partaken of the mutual support and strength inherent in the marital bond, but have never been permitted to hold or kiss my wife outside the presence of others in all our eleven years together. I have also recognized my spiritual nature, learned to value, and have struggled to develop within myself, the qualities of honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness, empathy, compassion, mercy, perseverance, acquiescence, loyalty, faithfulness, generosity, and a host of other qualities seen only in the shadows of my actions, but never have I been permitted to express them or share them outside these walls, save through words such as you are reading. To what end or purpose does continued imprisonment serve, especially in light of my exemplary behavior and my parole eligibility six years ago? Crime prevention? Rehabilitation? Revenge? How many others share similar circumstances or fates? And, at what cost to society as a whole, if not to the immediate individuals and families concerned?
1Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l Baha, p. 133
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