by Emile DeWeaver
The fall television line-up is a big deal for many Incarcerated-Americans. Waiting and monotony form the first two layers of Hell in prison, and any relief from these conditions can take on a holy quality. A new television season both breaks tedium and ends the summertime wait for new episodes. It’s a festive time. People slip away from work early, tear open the bag of cookies they’ve been saving all month, and prepare special meals to eat in the dark (it just feels more like a special event to watch TV in the dark).
I love television, but between making time for writing, work, school, and self-help groups, I’ve little leisure to watch TV. Also, I get a snobbish thrill out of telling people, “Aww, man: I forgot Big Brother was on. I was reading W. Somerset Maugham.” But because the fall premieres are a big deal here, my editor at the prison newspaper where I write film reviews asked me to take a break on movies to write about television.
The Monday premieres roll around, and, honestly, I want to spend my last two hours before bedtime finishing Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, but I have a job to do. I’m responsible. So I settle on my top bunk with pad, pen, oatmeal cookies, one Dixie cup of peanut butter, and a shit-eating grin. FOX’s Gotham airs, and the comic book geek in me wars with the social activist (most police procedurals irk me with their retributive justice dogma). My inner geek tramples the activist. Then FOX’s futuristic police procedural Minority Report premieres, and my inner activist wins out.
We live in a retributive society. I read the California Penal Code in my twenties (not the whole thing), and the legislation is unequivocal: “the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment [retribution]” and not rehabilitation. At first glance, it seems like a common sense approach to crime, but one has only to watch Minority Report (the show or the movie that inspired it) to see how unethical it is to prioritize punishment over rehabilitation.
On FOX’s Minority Report the world is emerging from the shadow of a utopia where murder didn’t exist because the authorities used psychics (precognatives or “pre-cogs”) to predict killings before they happened. If a citizen would have killed someone on Tuesday, he or she would be arrested on Monday to serve a life sentence for a crime never committed. The system fell apart because of the Minority Reports, files proving the predicted futures weren’t certain. Convicted citizens had a claim to innocence.
Would that we lived in a world where psychics could’ve singled me out as a kid in need of drastic intervention, and rather than incarcerating me forever, the authorities instead have taken me to a place where I could learn to let the right people love me.
The retribution-minded citizen likely agrees with me that the pre-cog system is unethical, but our ethics diverge with our reasoning. The general tenor of Minority Report and our society is that the pre-cog system is unethical because if even one innocent person can wake up with a life sentence, the system is unconscionable. I agree, but it’s a disturbing ethic that eclipses the elephantine travesty crouched by the couch.
In the TV world where we can predict criminality, we eliminate crime by imprisoning would-be perpetrators for life. No one in this utopia has thought to detain the would-be criminals and get them the help they need in order to correct the errors in their thinking that led to almost-murder. Minority Report’s milieu reflects a culture obsessed with stopping crime before it happens—a worthwhile goal—but here the irony breaks my heart because this utopia could actually end murder in a humane way.
Instead, they treat murderers not like humans, but defective cars to be recalled by the manufacturer. If I may extend this metaphor, imagine that the factory issuing the recall remains up and running, even though no one has fixed the manufacturing problem that’s producing unsafe cars. Now add the factory owner running up and down the assembly line screaming, “We have to recall all of these cars. Recall the cars!” The resources of this madman’s company sally forth into the world, recalling vehicles over and over while their factory continues to spew badly wired automobiles.
It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge, but criminals, even murderers, are people. Though their actions are reprehensible, they, in general, act out of very human motivations. These motives are less often hatred than one might think. The tragedy of my youth was that I would do anything to feel masculine and anything to feel loved. Unfortunately, these needs found satiation in a “gangsta” personal that earned a destructive love from “the neighborhood” that I, an affection-starved eighteen-year-old, believed was the only love I could have. Would that we lived in a world where psychics could’ve singled me out as a kid in need of drastic intervention, and rather than incarcerating me forever, the authorities instead have taken me to a place where I could learn to let the right people love me. In that society, I might’ve learned to be the man I am today twenty years ago.
The irony continues to sting because we live in a world that isn’t far removed from these possibilities. We know that an increase in the chance of future criminality correlates with poverty, childhood trauma, and having an incarcerated parent. Yet, what are we doing to decrease the number of parents we lock up? Children are running around American streets with PTSD resulting from cycles of urban violence. They’re getting no treatment—we imprison them instead. We can’t treat them because we’re spending $80 billion housing 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. The weight of these billions is cracking Education and Social Services. If we continue on our current track, the prison industrial complex will pulverize education, and the best case scenario for the ever-shrinking number of high school graduates in impoverished communities will be to become the next generation of prison guards, locking the doors on their incarcerated mothers and fathers.
The right way to deal with free people is not to inflict tremendous punishments on them after they have revolted, but to take tremendous care of them before this point is reached, to prevent them even contemplating the idea of revolt.
Despite knowing severe punishments don’t deter crime and make us safer, we’re obsessed with retribution—owners of broken factories screaming about cars. We’ve understood the shortsightedness of retributive theories since the Mytilenian Debate when Diodotus argued that the proper basis for a society’s security is in good administration rather than strong retribution.
But the right way to deal with free people is this: not to inflict tremendous punishments on them after they have revolted, but to take tremendous care of them before this point is reached, to prevent them even contemplating the idea of revolt, and, if we have to use force with them, to hold as few as possible of them responsible for this. (History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, page 221, Penguin, 1954.)
And just as we know severe punishment doesn’t discourage crime, we know that rehabilitation reduces crime. For example, while the California recidivism rate is close to 70%, the rate of Incarcerated-Americans serving 15 years to life or more (“lifers”) that return to prison is less than 3%. The reason for the latter statistic is that in California, “lifers” are the only demographic in prison required to demonstrate their rehabilitation before parole.
Any moral philosophy of criminal justice must have as its ideal end a safer society. My prison is famous for its support of rehabilitative programs, and there’s a running joke among my friends and I (graveyard humor): “The best men are in prison.”
We’re careful not to say this too loudly because it’s understandably offensive if taken literally. What we’re coping with is the fact that we know hundreds of people who not only pose no threat to society, but would instead be assets. We’re coping because we know those hundreds could be multiplied by thousands if the rehabilitative focus that rules the culture of our prison were exported to every prison in America. We’re gazing over the fence, and yes, we want to see our children and fall asleep with a loving woman in our arms, but we also want to get our hands back into the communities we once destroyed and actually start paying our debts to society.
Self-alienation lies at the root of criminality, and conversely the heart of rehabilitation isn’t about job skills and GEDs, but reconnecting with one’s sense of humanity.
Some of the most compassionate people in America are serving life sentences. As with many complex realities, it’s counterintuitive, but what happens is quite logical. You may ask yourself how a person can commit a heinous act against another. I was able to maintain a “gangsta” persona because I’d disconnected from myself. I know this because in my criminal life, I never asked myself what I wanted to do. I asked myself what I was expected to do, and that invariably led to self-alienating conduct. Years of self-suppression gradually dehumanized me, and self-dehumanization can’t help but affect the value one places on the humanity of others.
Self-alienation lies at the root of criminality, and conversely the heart of rehabilitation isn’t about job skills and GEDs, but reconnecting with one’s sense of humanity. This healing process requires the development of a particular skill set: compassion to forgive oneself, insight to understand oneself, and empathy to reconnect. I’ve found these skills are transferrable: the same tools rehabilitated people use to connect with and heal themselves can be used to connect with and heal others. Who better to break a cycle of intergenerational incarceration than a rehabilitated father who can serve as a living model of perseverance and transformation? Who better to reach traumatized youth than a person who has undergone the process of self-healing?
I talk to the volunteers at my prison who’ve committed themselves to being a part of the solution to mass incarceration, and they tell me about their efforts with at-risk youth. I advise these volunteers about how they might reach these kids, but l leave the conversation sad because I hesitate to say the self-serving thing I’ll say now. America’s solutions to intergenerational incarceration, cycles of violence, and juvenile criminality are watching television in prison. Our retributive system has kept us from seeing this elephant.