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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

He Who Humbles Himself Will Be Exalted

A Tale Of A Walled Town by Penitentiary B. 8266:

Ours is a grimy bit of blue;
   And very small; 
And sunbeams scarce adventure to
   O'ertop the wall. 
A bird that nutters swiftly by;
A wind that passes with a sigh;
A cloudlet sailing slow and high
   And that is all.

O matins, and O vesper bells,
                     Toll slowly!
A city of a thousand cells—
A thousand individual hells.

I spent some time at the correctional facility in Swanton today with my friends and teammates, meeting with one of our Community Justice Center clients.  The details aren't important, but after several months of doing pretty well re-entering the community he made some serious mistakes and is back inside for...well, it's not entirely clear yet how long he'll be there.  

It's not surprising in the least, just disappointing. Not because he let us down really, though he certainly has.  Mostly because it's such a damned waste.

Please keep in mind that I am in no way excusing his crimes (these are public record, but I won't discuss them specifically).  They are significant and horrible, yet he was going to be coming out at some point having served his time, so the question is what can we do to ensure there will be no more victims, our communities will be safe, and this young man has a chance to get back on track?

Sadly, not only did he let down the team who volunteered to support him and hold him accountable, we let him down.  More than just the handful of people working with him in the program, but all of us down the line to varying degree.

It's the usual recipe for failure: bad family life, nobody to provide unconditional love or set boundaries, dreadful choices, unfortunate circumstances, lack of necessary treatment inside, little societal support and guidance when back outside, rinse, repeat.  We were there to try breaking that cycle a little, and despite some of our own shortcomings we'd changed the dynamic, though not quite enough yet.

He's not in segregation or anything right now, yet is in a bit of limbo with no opportunity to even work at the moment while the wheels of bureaucracy creak along.  Nothing very constructive to do, so we gave him some "homework" to help him consider why we were meeting him in jail, his behaviors and thought-processes (or lack thereof) behind them, and how we can all hopefully continue to work with him going forward.

There will be ample time for him to reflect.  And as I had time on my drive home, I started thinking about penitence.

We Quakers have a good deal of experience with that.  And I mean not theologically, but in penal terms:

In 1790, Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia (built in 1773, but expanded later under a state act) was built by the Quakers and was the first institution in the United States designed to punish and rehabilitate criminals. It is considered the birthplace of the modern prison system.
At Walnut Street, each cell block had 16 one-man cells. In the wing known as the "Penitentiary House," inmates spent all day every day in their cells. Felons would serve their entire sentences in isolation, not just as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God. It was a revolutionary idea—no penal method had ever before considered that criminals might be reformed. In 1829, Quakers and Anglicans expanded on the idea born at Walnut Street, constructing a prison called Eastern State Penitentiary, which was made up entirely of solitary cells along corridors that radiated out from a central guard area. At Eastern State, every day of every sentence was carried out primarily in solitude, though the law required the warden to visit each prisoner daily and prisoners were able to see reverends and guards. The theory had it that the solitude would bring penitence; thus the prison—now abandoned—gave our language the term "penitentiary."

Ironically, solitary confinement had been conceived by the Quakers and Anglicans as humane reform of a penal system with overcrowded jails, squalid conditions, brutal labor chain gangs, stockades, public humiliation, and systemic hopelessness. Instead, it drove many men mad.

Revolutionary, indeed, and based on our typical naivety--excusable, perhaps, a little in this case since there was no science to guide us at this point, and now we work against the form of inhumanity we invented.

What we didn't understand back then was there are myriad factors contributing to crime.  Certainly the offender is primarily to blame, there's no question.  But as I work more with this population, I see so immediately the other forces at work.

Vermont's Governor has suggested we tackle some of our problems in constructive, fiscally-responsible ways.  Still, there's so much more we can and should be doing.  Providing more mental health treatment inside, for example.  And once they're outside, spending much more on support and accountability to increase their chances for success.

One of the struggles both Ericka and I have with our Justice Center charges is a general lack of empathy and humility on their part.  Again, it should come as no surprise: if you've been in and out of prison since you were a kid, had no mature relationship models, whatever, how could you possibly learn how all that works in the real world?  

As it is, with all time and energy we spend trying to help the offenders in our various restorative justice programs, it's hard to keep them on the straight and narrow.  I cannot fathom how somebody without such assistance is supposed to make it.

It really frightens me to see the private prison industry grow in this country.  Profit motive is hardly going to help mitigate the impact of crime, bloated inmate populations, rising correctional costs, etc.

Our involvement in this costs our family money: extra childcare expenses, increased fuel to travel up to St Albans, lost work time and so on.  We see it as a financial and moral investment that can pay off handsomely in the long-run.

For me personally it's just another instance of tikkun olam, and despite failures and disappointments, I cannot help but continue.  So that's what I thought about on this rainy day.  I don't know what our acquaintance inside is thinking right now, but I am cautiously optimistic that this will end up being a bump in the road, and a real opportunity for penitence and to start anew.

We've got a lot of work ahead of us.


March 14, 2012 | Permalink


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but no jail time, well, okay then.

still do miss you, buddy.

Posted by: Little Boots | Mar 15, 2012 1:36:49 AM

fantastic post, NTodd.

Posted by: Nancy Willing | Mar 16, 2012 9:19:37 AM

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