Your neighbor in prison

By Stan Moody | Mar 17, 2010

As I watched the facial expressions of legislators while I was testifying on Maine's so-called solitary confinement bill, LD1611, it was clear to me that they were struggling with how to rephrase their staid corrections mentality in the face of mounting evidence of its failure of logic and common sense.

Dismissal of expert testimony on the adverse psychological and emotional effects of the loss of human dignity in our prison system was grounded in the rebuttal, "You have never visited our prisons." That may be true for some, but it is becoming increasingly possible that every person reading this article has known or maybe been closely associated with a convicted felon.

In less than a month after becoming a chaplain at Maine State Prison, I discovered to my surprise that I knew several prisoners there. Two of them I had known since they were about 10 years old, and one of those had been raised right behind me in an upscale professional neighborhood in Portland. He had worn a path from his back door to ours over the years.

Why did I not know what had happened to him? The blunt fact is that, like so many other suburbanites, I was so busy with my own life that I really didn't care. His presence within that prison is a constant reminder to me of my own failure as a friend and neighbor.

It is such lack of caring about the welfare of others that is filling our prisons with those who have fallen within the cracks of acceptable social behavior and that has bred legislators who suffer under the illusion that they are keeping the public safe by locking criminals up, callously disregarding their civil rights and throwing away the key.

At the legislative work session on the bill, several of these folks repeated a rehearsed mantra: "What about the victims?" In other words, to demonstrate concern for basic civil rights for prisoners whose own families are paying a severe price for their crimes is to betray the people they have damaged. You have only to listen to a public debate on sex-offender laws to pick out those who have themselves been violated. They want to grind their offending neighbor into the ground because of their inability to come to terms with what their dad or uncle or pastor did to them.

I hate to break this to you, reader, but crime is our — the public's — problem. In Maine, we spend $40,000 a year to keep offenders out of sight and put them under the jurisdiction of an Elizabethan system that insists punishment builds character. "Because Dad kicked me around, and I turned out so great, what these guys need is to be kicked around." At Maine State Prison, approximately 13 percent of all prisoners are in segregation at any one time. It is likely that more than 50 percent have been in segregation at one time or another during their incarceration. It is the new age way of keeping an overcrowded prison under control.

By comparison, a complementary 13 percent of all prisoners are in the Prison Industries Program that produces knickknacks for the prison store in Thomaston. A disproportionate number of those are lifers for whom skill training is of dubious benefit to anyone, especially victims of crime.

Guess who are the keepers of the prison gate? More neighbors! Some are there by the curious twists and turns of fate. Others are there because they have a fascination with police culture. A number have higher education; most have high school diplomas, some have GEDs, some even have criminal records, I am told by a private investigator. By and large, though, it is a rather efficient and well-run institution, albeit an inconsistent, dehumanizing culture.

So the question lingers, "How do you keep your neighborhood safe when some of your neighbors have been victimized by other neighbors who are now being warehoused in larger and larger numbers by still other neighbors?" How do victims become compensated by longer and harsher sentences that strip people of their last shred of decency and destroy their family units? Offhand, it seems like a self-perpetuating system — a zero-sum game.

Interestingly, it is not the general public that is cramming our prisons full of drug offenders, those convicted of operating under the influence, three-time losers and shoplifters, 60 percent of whom are destined to head back for the same offenses within two years. It is a Legislature that thinks it represents a nation of vigilantes. To the contrary, the public is very receptive to such preventive measures as intervention in parenting and better drug treatment programs.

Yes, when it comes to sex offenders, rapists and gruesome murderers, the death penalty, castration and hard labor are high on the public's list of options. The overwhelming majority of prisoners at Maine State Prison, however, are there for nonviolent crimes and are becoming hardened by being perceived by their keepers as subhuman. In what way does this compensate their victims — neighbor-to-neighbor?

My college professor son was out for a late-night walk in his South Carolina neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. He was hit by a vehicle driven by a young lady, thrown up over the hood of the car, smashed the windshield and was left for dead on the side of the road. A half-hour later, he came to and lurched from mailbox to mailbox back to his home, was hospitalized and had surgery. What has emerged from this experience is that neighbors saw him lurching along the street badly hurt, assumed he was a drunk and pulled their curtains shut — not a respectable drunk, methinks.

There is no safety anywhere, including in our gated suburban neighborhoods. Legislators who puff themselves up as protectors of society are negligently cutting off alternative sentencing for nonviolent crimes and threatening transfer to private prisons with their three meals a day of peanut butter sandwiches. Corrections employees, from the top down, are stuck in a 19th-century failed prison culture of thinking that only a prison cop really knows how to handle "dirtbags." I guess it is easy to be tough from an ivory tower.

In the meantime, you and I —- citizens and neighbors — are being sold a bill of goods that the public can be protected by hiding away all those bad guys for interminable lengths of time. At the rate we are going, it will not be long before the bad guys outnumber the rest of us. I should like to know how much drug and alcohol treatment and sex-offender rehabilitation you might get for $40,000 a year per person who might possibly earn enough money to offer appropriate victim compensation.

All this goes back to a self-righteous notion that some neighborhoods are better than others, some neighbors are better than others and some politicians and their absurd parties are better than others. I have not found that to be the case in my long years of experience in industry, prison and the Legislature.

We are all in it together, folks. Rage, impulse, anger and escape from reality infect us all to one degree or another. Whatever happened to "There but for the grace of God go I"?

Neighbor-to-neighbor, is this really the best we can do?

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