thoughts on prison reform

angoladevilPeople can be polarized by the topic of prison reform. I sometimes wish I could stand happily by one of the poles, but prison conditions, prisoner treatment, respect for law and respect for victims are all topics that pull my heart in many, many directions.

They broke the law, they endanger other humans, they have no rights
Very plainly, some people believe that if you break the law, you get what’s coming to you and lose your rights. Done.  But it’s not that black and white, really, right? What rights do they lose? Civil rights? Human rights? What is a human right? Are civil rights different from human rights?

There isn’t an official list of basic human rights and even if you take a look at the first link provided above, I bet you’d find yourself saying, “no, that’s not a basic human right” or “yes, that is definitely a basic human right.”

One of the problems with prisons is that they are run by people who are fallible, who will take bribes, and choose favorites, and lie, and cheat and break the rules. And you always hear the horror stories of people being mistreated in prisons. Rape, beatings, assault — does anyone deserve that treatment?

I was listening to NPR and the most emotionally confusing story was aired. This story was reporting on prisoners in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana who put on a passion play.

The story was so incredible and the interviews were so captivating. You hear about these prisoners who have had an opportunity to engage in something stimulating and creative. And you think, “good for them” and “it’s really wonderful of that institution to provide this opportunity to the incarcerated so they don’t just rot away.”

Though, some people think they should just rot away. But then you wonder how much that costs and consider the costs to incarcerate someone to begin with… all provided by taxpayers. And you’ve heard people talk about how they don’t want their tax dollars providing people who break the law with recreational, fun activity. Back to the idea of they broke the law and should just rot in prison. PLUS, I want my tax dollars to improve roads and public schools…

Back to the NPR story, I got swept away in the soundbites.  They interviewed the prisoner-actors and you listened to soundbites from the play and you think to yourself, “that’s really well done!” and your honestly impressed. You hear the interviews done with the prisoner-actors and you’re moved by how they approached their role and what the role means to them and then you remember… they’re prisoners.

They’ve done something awful.

And then you allow yourself some leniency and say, “oh, maybe they weren’t violent offenders,” and then BAM! the guy who plays the devil in the passion play has been convicted of rape and you hear his voice (minute 5:39 of the interview) and your skin crawls. And then you think, you are actually a devil.

But I don’t want anyone to be killed. I don’t want anyone to starve. I don’t want anyone to be raped. He needs a place to sleep and food to eat, but does he need a recreational activity?

And what about the wrongly convicted? And what about non-violent offenders? And what about the mentally ill? And what about what caused the prisoners to get to that point?

What about it?


3 thoughts on “thoughts on prison reform

  1. I always love reading your thoughts, and this time is no different. As a public defender at heart, in practice, and soon, in profession, I think, “How can we not defend our fellow man who is more than an act for which he is accused?” As a person with a heart, I recoil in horror at the idea that it was/is/could be my family that is touched by crime. At the end of the day, I am called to action by a proverb that you know well, ubuntu. “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.”


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