Sunday, October 19, 2008

Prison isn't a pleasant place to be. It's cement and metal, which means there's a lot of echo. There are always lights on. Where you can be is controlled 24 hours a day. When you have to get up, when you have to eat, when you can shower, all these things are decided for you. There's no real privacy. You are subject to strip searches, you have to shower in front of other people, you can't even shut out all other eyes when you go to the bathroom. No matter what sort of nice programs your prison has, no matter what lax rules it has towards what clothes you can wear or what things (like televisions or radios) you can have in your cell, no matter how good the recreation facilities and food may be, you're still locked up 24/7.

So prison sucks. We don't really need to make it as absolutely awful, dehumanizing, undignified, and wretched as we can. Yet I find an awful lot of prisons seem to go out of their way to take away as many little things as they can from inmates. I can think of no reason for this other than spite. Surely we can let individual prisoners have their own, personal underwear rather than making them wear underwear from a collective pile. I don't care how good the washing machine is; I don't want to wear underwear after it's been worn by someone else. Surely we can let them wear a real pair of shoes, not just flip flops. Surely we can let them have adequate time and tools for basic personal hygiene. Surely we can let them have some basic human contact, decent reading and education materials, maybe even a little counseling or anger management classes. Most of them will get out one day, so why not let them gain some useful tools and skills so they can have decent lives when they do get out?

Yes, most people in prison have done some bad things and deserve punishment. But being locked up inside prison is already punishment enough. Really, it is. We don't have to make it as harsh and unbearable as we possibly can. We can show inmates a little compassion and decency without being "soft on crime" and without insulting the memory of their victims or forgetting the horror of their crimes.

Once they're sentenced and incarcerated, how we choose to treat prison inmates says a lot more about us than it does about them.

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