Rehabilitation vs. Retribution vs. Liberation, Part I: The Context of Violence

"Geese are Taking Over" by Fred Dunn (via Flickr)

“Geese are Taking Over” by Fred Dunn (via Flickr)

Everyone in the program was pretty excited to see a couple of our instructors, Drew Leder and Mikita Brottman, featured in an article – a cover article no less – in the Baltimore City Paper this week. It’s also wonderful to see some of our students, like Mr. Hardy and Mr. Fitzgerald, being named and given a voice, even if the Department of Corrections still reserves the right to restrict who may speak to reporters. And the article did a fine job of capturing the variety of those specific voices, rather than presenting the incarcerated men as an undifferentiated mass of “prisoners” – several of the unnamed students were immediately recognizable, just from the way Mr. Woods reproduced their cadences and attitudes on the page. One of our goals is to help humanize incarcerated individuals to the wider world – among the first questions we get from new people we tell about the program is usually some variation on “aren’t you scared?” (no) – and painting such a nuanced portrait of some of our classes is something a journalist is far better at than we philosophers

But, since I am a philosopher, I wanted to talk a bit about the philosophy that I bring to teaching in and helping to coordinate the program, with respect to one of the issues that the article raises.

In the article, Baynard Woods writes:

How you feel about what is happening in this room says a lot about how you feel about the function of prisons in the United States. Is prison punishment or rehabilitation? If the purpose of prison is to punish a transgressor of society’s laws, then it is a travesty to spend money for men like Hardy and Fitzgerald to be educated when you may not be able to afford to pay for your kids to go to college.

But if the purpose of prison is rehabilitate, then we should praise the fact that these men have an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life, power, and violence through great literary works.

This is a pretty standard way of setting up the philosophical debate about prisons and other elements of the criminal justice system – punishment or rehabilitation? Are we trying to balance the moral scales for an individual’s transgressions? Or are we trying to get him to go forth and sin no more?

I certainly don’t fault the article for framing the issue in that way, but I think it’s important to talk about a different way of thinking about what we are trying to do in this program than rehabilitation. What both the rehabilitative and retributive approaches share is an assumption that the core problem is “how do we, the representatives of the good society, deal with them, these individual people who have broken the rules.”

Let’s not sugar-coat things; our students have broken rules – both legal and moral ones. It’s important to start this conversation honestly. There are a lot of people in the United States who I believe are in prison for things that are not wrong at all. I welcome recent moves to decriminalize non-violent drug use, for instance. But most of our students are not in prison for non-violent drug crimes. I don’t know what all of our students did (or were accused of doing) that led them to prison. I don’t ask, usually: that’s not what our relationship is about. But for the ones who have brought it up, it’s serious and immoral things – rape, multiple murder, assault with intent to kill, and the like. Some of them have political spins on what they’ve done, but for the most part I wouldn’t excuse their actions even if I’m sympathetic to their politics – and as a person of Jewish descent with a few guys who wear white pride symbols in class, I’m often not even sympathetic to their politics. So in everything I say next, I’m biting the bullet intentionally: (many of) our students have committed serious crimes, violations not just of law but of morality and human decency.

But here’s the problem with asking “rehabilitation or punishment?” We – “we,” me, writing this, many of you, reading this, who are not and have not been imprisoned – are not pure representatives of the abstract standards of good and right to which all must aspire. We have also committed serious crimes, violations of morality and human decency.

Both rehabilitation and punishment presume that the problem is how to reintegrate a transgressive individual back into a stable world of shared value. It’s not clear that many men in prison were ever properly integrated into shared values in the first place, though.

The third option is to look to a, for lack of a better term, liberatory approach to work in prisons.

What does this mean? I can’t give a complete account here. But central to it is recognizing the violence in the existing relationships between people like me and people like my students, and creating a space to deal with that.

In this post, I’d like to focus on why I think we need to see the existing relationship as violent; later, if you’re still with me, I’ll say a little more about what I hope education can do about it.

The relationship that we – I – and we, folks like me, many of the folks reading this, relatively affluent, educated, white, cisgender folks with good access to care for our physical and mental health – have to many of the communities from which the students in our classes are drawn, is one of violence. We need an education practice that doesn’t seek to “fix” the students as much as it seeks to extricate both of us from a violent system. At least temporarily. At least a little, enough to get some breathing room. I am not in the classroom to presume to fix the problem of violence in prisons, or in poor communities. I am in the classroom to address the problem of violence in the affluent white community.

I am not even trying to be subtle and point to “structural violence” here. Agents of the law (and self-proclaimed agents of law), who respond to a political system that mostly serves the interests of people like me, direct a lot of literal violence into poor communities and communities of color.

In 2012, 313 Black people were killed by police, security guards, and vigilantes. Anecdotes of police shooting or killing of minorities under questionable circumstances circulate widely, but comprehensive data on police shootings is hard to come by, in part because there is no national-level tracking of police use of firearms. That said, smaller studies indicate significant racial bias: from 1990-2010, 32 percent of individuals shot by police in Las Vegas were Black, in an area where only 10 percent of the overall population is (including half of the unarmed people shot by police); Blacks were overrepresented in police shootings in every metro area studied by Colorlines and the Chicago Reporter (covering 1980-2005). These real world studies of shootings are consistent with racial bias in less-lethal police tactics like stop-and-frisk, as well as with laboratory research showing a bias among police (to be fair to police, reflecting a bias among most people, and one that police training in some cases seems to mitigate) to perceive blacks as more likely to be a threat than whites.

Race is not the only divide tied up with violence in our society, of course – though racial bias is relatively well-studied and is tied to socioeconomic status in the US. People living with mental illness are also subject to elevated levels of violence, including (but not limited to) from caretakers and law enforcement – the very people in whose trust “society” puts them. There are other groups exposed to serious violence, particularly women and transgender individuals, who don’t happen to be represented among our students.

And let’s not forget that prisoners themselves are a class exposed disproportionately to violence, and we cannot escape the fact that even when the violence in prisons is not perpetrated by the guards or other agents of “us,” prisons are violent environments that we create and maintain, even knowing about their violence.

None of this is intended as a holier-than-thou indictment of police, or prison officials, or the wealthy. This is a critique of “us,” including me. Most of the police and prison officials and the like who I meet are normal people trying to do their jobs reasonably well, as am I. We’re not necessarily malicious. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not part of a very dangerous system.

A response to this system requires something more radical than even the softer rehabilitative approach, which still assumes that I am good, and my students are bad. It needs to create a space where we can recognize the good and bad in all of us and authentically face up to the morality of our actions.

Note: This post draws heavily on ideas from “Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison,” by Daniel Levine and Joshua Miller, currently under review at Radical Philosophy Review.

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