Friday, February 19, 2010

Locked Up on Liberty Street by Harvey Yoder

In our land of the free an astonishing 2.3 million of our citizens are behind bars, more than in any other country in the world, including China.

Our local Harrisonbug jail houses a crowded 300 men and women inmates, and is efficiently managed by a dedicated and overworked staff. But should we be asking why, and whether, we should have four times as many Virginians in prison today than just 25 years ago?

As a teacher of parenting classes I stress the importance of time outs as a good consequence for misbehaving children. Incarceration could be thought of as a humane kind of “time out” for misbehaving adults, certainly preferable to public stocks, floggings and other past forms of torture and humiliation.

But as with any good consequences, a first word to keep in mind is Reasonable. The most effective punishment is not necessarily the longest or harshest. For example, if a three month sentence is good for a given offender, a year in the same steel cage is not likely to be four times better. The law of diminishing returns sets in at a point where the resentment an offender feels outweighs the learning value of the consequence.

I am not in favor of pampering prisoners, but one might also question the reasonableness of charging local inmates $1 an ounce for coffee, 75¢ for a styrofoam coffee cup, and 10¢ for a plastic stirring spoon. Maybe offenders should be glad for any coffee, period, no matter how expensive. But it’s usually innocent family members who have to pick up the tab. Our jail is among the few in the state that charges $1 a day for room and board fee as permitted by Virginia law. Until that is paid, inmates can’t purchase a single canteen item, not even a pricey 11¢ packet of ketchup for a hamburger. The result is families either having to pay a $365 annual levy, plus cash for the steeply priced canteen items, or having their inmates doing without things as basic as deodorant. Is that reasonable?

A second word associated with good consequences is Respectful. To humiliate either a disobedient child or a lawbreaking adult is not a good way to get positive results. At our local jail, simple respect might mean inmates not having to be in handcuffs and wearing blaze orange prison suits when brought into the visitor booth--one with no escape exit and where inmates and guests are separated by a wall of solid concrete, steel and glass. Even state penitentiaries don’t impose this kind of indignity.

A third R of good consequences is Restorative. A Department of Corrections should seek to rehabilitate and correct rather than simply punish, and should see to it that offenders make full restitution for their wrongs. This means more nonviolent prisoners being under house arrest, in jail work-release programs, or on well supervised parole or probation, and regularly undergoing drug testing while being required to work  to support themselves and their families and otherwise pay off their debt to society.

At noon this Monday, February 22, a panel consisting of a retired judge, the local sheriff, our commonwealth’s attorney, a defense attorney and an authority on restorative justice will discuss the topic, “Better Strategies Against Crime” at Clementine Cafe in Harrisonburg. We invite you to come and contribute your ideas on how to make our system of correction more reasonable, respectful and restorative, plus saving us taxpayers a bundle in the process.

                    - Harvey Yoder is  a licensed counselor and  member of the Harrisonburg chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

1 comment:

  1. Great title! But how disturbing -- I did not know many of these facts about our local jail. When I first came to the city a few years ago, I remember being shocked and appalled at the sight of a chain of prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits, all handcuffed and joined together at their backsides, being led along one side of Court Square. I had thought such spectacles were part of our country's past.

    Just the sight of this made me incensed on the prisoners' behalf -- this kind of public humiliation does not reflect well on us as a community.



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