Friday, July 12, 2013

The Challenge of Compassion

I attend a panel, sponsored by the Pasadena branch of the ACLU, on the subject of California Prison Realignment. The speakers are the ACLU Representative who serves L.A. County Jail, the leader of the faith-based Justice Not Jails group and a woman who, motivated by her own brother's brutal attack by guards at the County Jail, has formed a coalition to institute citizen oversight at the facility.

I am more familiar with the state prison system than the county jail although both systems in common fall far short in providing any sort of true rehabilitative program and both are plagued by cadres of indifferent, and sometimes ruthless, guards. I have long been aware that novice sheriffs are first assigned to work at the jail. Up until there was a big stink about a year ago, the least experienced deputies were put in charge of the most volatile inmates. One of the speakers notes that Los Angeles County is unique in California, and indeed most of the U.S., in training sheriffs via jail duty. He points out that this sort of introduction to law enforcement work seems very “Southern.” There are scads of reports about abusive jail personnel but the victims lack credibility so much of the abuse goes unchecked. The ACLU jail representative on the panel recounts witnessing guards viciously kicking an unconscious inmate. She adds that there is other testimony, based on witnessing similar violence inflicted on inmates by jail staff, provided by a jail chaplain and also by a tutor.

It is interesting that much of the uproar about the abysmal conditions at the L.A. County Jail is fueled by the fact that most of the inmates are being held because they're awaiting trial and can't afford to make bail. Many of the ACLU members are particularly outraged that so many of the prisoners suffering in the county jail are innocent. Does this imply that it's OK for the guilty to be subjected to barbaric conditions?

As I write this we are in the third day of a hunger strike by some 13,000 state prison inmates whose major issue is the imposition of indefinite periods of solitary confinement. Prisoners who do not renounce gang affiliation are often subjected to years of solitary. For many inmates, “dropping the flag” potentially puts loved ones on the outside at risk. Many inmates languish in solitary confinement for decades in order to protect wives, mothers and children. The spokeswoman for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is quoted saying that strikers will be dealt with harshly. Visiting and phone privileges will be revoked and commissary items (purchased with the inmate's own money) will be confiscated. The Corrections Department declines to name the locations of the prisons where inmates are striking. Strikers face other punitive sanctions including lengthened sentences. Forced feeding will be instituted if the strike continues. One of this weeks viral videos is of the courageous rapper/actor Mos Def volunteering to undergo forced feeding to give the public an idea of what our government is perpetrating at Guantanamo and soon likely, California. I know better than to watch such a video but I understand that the procedure was so excruciating that Def asked that it be discontinued.

The news from Texas is that there's a good chance a bill that highly restricts the availability of abortions, despite Wendy Davis's epic filibuster, is destined to pass. Ironically, the purportedly “pro-life” state recently celebrated its 500th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
A newsletter I subscribe to chronicles executions and death penalty issues around the world. Often there are photographs and biographies of death row inmates. The preponderance are black, born of teen moms and often in the third or fourth generation to struggle with drug addiction and chalk up many more years incarcerated than on the street. I am saddened but each mugshot is just further evidence of the tragic and seemingly ceaseless cycle.

Some letters written by a prisoner on death row to his sister are beautifully written and moving. The writer, William Van Poyck is white and educated and was executed in Florida on June 12. His sister keeps a blog with his letters which provide an illuminating and harrowing description of his final days, which he endured with miraculous equanimity. William Van Poyck is more like me than most of the other 1329 inmates who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. His articulate voice gives me a better understanding of what it is like to be on death row.

It is easier to punish those who are least like us. The earnest ACLU members are outraged that the innocent suffer in the hell that is County Jail. But what of the guilty? What about a gang member who spends decades in solitary confinement in order to protect his family? What about the man with a 76 IQ struggling to understand the process that will ultimately end his life? I think that people do have good inclinations. Good work is done on behalf of children and animals. But we slam on the brakes at the sign of any moral ambiguity. I would not want to be part of a community that did not strive to project innocent kids and puppies. I long though for a society with the courage and compassion to protect the guilty.  

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I write this as another much-promoted, or exploited, trial ends and a jury finds a verdict. That reminds me of a disparity increasing as we follow cases from afar. We may be exposed to much more data than the jury, and I wonder how this rush engaged in by millions, watchers and reporters both, to play judge, jury, and executioner (or vindicator) deepens the public's reaction to prisoners and to attempts at reform vs. attempts to punish? Changes appear on both sides, I reckon, due to this medium. Just a thought that occurred me