The California budget cuts seem to get more draconian hourly. (Do we really think it’s a good idea to slash nearly all of LAUSD’s summer school programs? Really? I mean, really???)
And on Wednesday, after spending the morning observing a case that was unfolding at Eastlake Juvenile Court, I began to wonder, not so briefly, if a good portion of those working in LA County’s juvenile justice system were actively psychotic. (It’s a story that will have to wait until later.)
But last night, all at once, a moment of blessed sanity broke through the bad, sad, cloudy thinking that too often these days seem to dictate public policy. It came in the form of a review in the June 11 issue of the New York Review of Books.
The book in question is titled Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice to All. Its author is Sunny Schwartz. The reviewer’s name is Helen Epstein.
(Prior to reading the piece, I had never heard of either of these women, but now I may have to find a way to be friends with both of them.)
The review opens as follows:
America’s prison system is in a dire state. Some 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, five times more than in 1978. Our incarceration rate is now higher than that of any other country in the world. Many, if not most, inmates probably should not be there. Sixteen percent of the adult prison population suffers from mental illness and should be in treatment; a similar fraction is made up of children under eighteen. Although there is little evidence that blacks are more likely to use drugs than whites, they are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug-related charges. Of those, most have no history of violence or drug dealing, and were arrested mainly for possession of drugs.
Sexual and other forms of abuse in prison are common, reported by some 20 percent of inmates. These “monster factories,” as the lawyer and author Sunny Schwartz calls them, do little to break the cycle of violence in society and may even accelerate it. Roughly two thirds of those released from US jails and prisons end up back inside within three years. Some studies suggest that the experience of imprisonment can be so brutal and humiliating that it actually makes men, in particular, harder and meaner, so that the crimes they commit the next time around are even worse than what got them incarcerated in the first place.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is currently sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to review America’s entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. If the bill passes, its commissioners should bear in mind a small experiment that took place in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, some years ago. This project, the subject of Sunny Schwartz’s brief, absorbing memoir Dreams from the Monster Factory, is important not just because it dramatically reduced recidivism, but also because it could help break the tired stalemate between liberals and conservatives over punishment versus rehabilitation.
Schwartz’s program at San Bruno came to be called the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or RSVP. In addition to providing eduction and other programs, the heart of RSVP was rooted in the the idea of “restorative justice.”
Contemporary justice in the United States is largely based on the idea of retribution, and relies primarily on punishment. Restorative justice, as Schwartz explains it, is based on the concept prevalent in more traditional societies that offenders must also try to repair, as far as possible, the harm they have caused others. In order to do this, offenders must first confront what they have done, and then make amends to their families, their communities, and, if possible, their victims as well. Schwartz writes that she very soon came to believe that restorative justice could be a means of transforming these men from chronic offenders into productive members of their communities.
The first step, persuading the San Bruno inmates to face up to their own violent behavior, would be the most difficult….
Epstein writes much, much more--both about Schwartz’s program and the issue in general, including things like the work of Harvard’s James Gilligan, who in the 1980’s was in charge of mental health services in the Massachusetts prisons, where he theorized (with remarkable results) that much of the violence perpetrated by the inmates he studied was “shame-based.”
Anyway, just read it. It’s smart, wise, true. —and information that is in desperate need of being taken seriously, in California and nationwide—but particularly in our fair state as Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his haze of fury and frustration, pushes for all rehabilitative programs to be dropped from California prisons altogether—a move that, no matter how tight our purse strings must now be tied, is a short-sighted and reckless way to build a future.