The purpose of a penitentiary…

…used to be, as the name says, penance.  That’s when we had something of a Christian view of the human person.  Now, in our new, improved culture, our badly broken prison system is simply a place of mindless cruelty.

That is, when it is not part of a monstrously evil scheme for jailing kids for fun and profit.

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  • Dave G.

    But isn’t solitary confinement the alternative to the death penalty? I’ve seen that once if I’ve seen it a hundred times. We know prisoners can be threats to other prisoners. In lieu of the death penalty, it’s been said that dangerous prisoners can always be put in solitary confinement. Even for remainder of their lives. Which would work, of course. But if that’s what solitary confinement is, then what other solutions are there that keep a dangerous prisoner from harming, or killing, those in the prisons?

    • Michaelus

      If we quit imprisoning people for things like selling a bag of plant leaves we would be able to afford to give every violent psychopath a private garden, a puppy and playtime supervised by three ex-Navy SEALs.

      • Dave G.

        And all would fall into place, and all possibilities fulfilled, if we wouldn’t incarcerate pot dealers. Solitary with gardens and puppies. That would make Louis Dega happy.

      • Rebecca Fuentes

        What did those puppies ever do to you?

      • If we quit imprisoning people for things like selling a bag of plant leaves we would be able to afford….

        This kind of statement is easily verified. Who’s got the hard numbers?

        Also, if we’re going to discuss these things, we should call them by their names. “quit imprisoning people for things like selling a bag of psychoactive plant leaves”. Leaving out relevant details is disingenuous. Once the truth has been established we can begin to discuss the issue. Not until then.

    • chezami

      Setting up false alternatives is another favorite ploy for making excuses for the death penalty.

      • Dave G.

        Bad non-response. The type I remember when debating KJV only ministers. About as beneficial, too.

        • Matt Talbot

          Well, there are many alternatives besides 1. Solitary and 2. Killing offenders. Offhand: especially close supervision of certain designated inmates. Taking a more pro-active mental-health approach to offenders who are not pure sociopaths. Physical barriers that are designed to allow viewing and communicating with other prisoners, while minimizing the risk of assault. And so on.

          • chezami


            • Dave G.

              We are thinking about and discussing this stuff. How about joining.

      • Setting up no alternatives is pharasaical. Someone is murdered. We catch the perpetrator. What now?

      • Setting up false alternatives is another favorite ploy for making excuses for the death penalty.

        Yeah, and if Dave G. was doing that, you might have a point. It doesn’t sound like he was doing that. Don’t let legitimate concerns kill worthwhile discussion, Mark.

      • Dave G.

        Jon W is correct. I was not setting up any such thing. I merely point out that, in any one of a thousand discussions on the death penalty, supporters of the Church’s direction, when confronted with inmate violence, drop the idea of solitary confinement as a first solution. Even when some have suggested that a life in solitary may be worse than death, that’s been defended as the go-to answer. And not just in combox debates. I’ve seen it mentioned in more serious calls to end the death penalty when dealing with the very real problem of prison violence. So, in light of that, if we begin saying that solitary is not an option, it’s fair to ask what is.

  • MarylandBill

    Unfortunately, prison, at least as it is practiced now, seems to have a host of unfortunate effects on the prisoners, the guards and on society.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Prisons today are simply holding camps for organized crime used as slave labor. They’re doing more harm than good. People come out of them more hardened and mean than when they went in.

  • Eve Fisher

    I do volunteer work in prison; my basic attitude is always, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Because it’s true. A drink or two over the line; a terrible accident; a descent into rage at the wrong time/place; being mistaken for someone else; doing something “wrong” in a region with for-profit prisons who depend on a full bed count; and any one can end up in prison, in isolation, in hell. Even you and me.

    Currently, at state prisons, prisoners make $.25 an hour; if the prison happens to have a contract with an industry that’s leasing them out, the prisoner can – if exceptionally skilled – make minimum wage. At the same time, there are not enough jobs for every prisoner (these are not for-profit prisons), and so those prisoners who aren’t fortunate enough to have a job are kept in their cell 22-23 hours out of every 24 (15 minutes maximum per meal, and at least 1/2 hour a day for exercise).

    The food (contracted to the lowest bidder – $2.75/per day/per prisoner is a good guess) is horrendous: soy-based products which are hard on the digestion. (I know this experientially because we eat the prison food in the prison cafeteria.) No fruit, fresh or dried; perhaps one vegetable a day, usually raw. Prisoners use their hard-won dollars for “comissary”, where 1 package of Ramen soup goes for $5.00. (Their families also try to help out.) Speaking of contracts and families, both prisons and jails routinely have a contract with a telephone service where, instead of allowing collect calls to families, the families are charged $3.00 a minute to talk to their loved ones, and have to provide the money up front via credit card. Think about that one for a while.

    Yes, solitary confinement is used for death-row inmates and the “super-predators”. But solitary is used for a variety of other reasons: punishment (someone loses their temper, steals something, etc., in prison – off to the hole, where they will stay anywhere from 1-30 days); warehousing (what else do you do with the 14 year old who’s just been convicted as an adult?); and evaluation. When people first go into prison, they’re usually sent for 24-48 hours in isolation to see how they react, and sent to the cell block appropriate for their behavior. Or more isolation. Since people rarely do well in total isolation (sometimes no reading material is allowed in this initial evaluation), often they are evaluated as far worse than they are.

    Solitary confinement is often used on the mentally ill, sometimes on the very old, sick and dying. The criminally insane are indeed terribly dangerous, and often spend most of their time in solitary, trying to find ways to hurt or kill themselves. The very old, sick, and dying prisoners are often inadvertently in solitary, once they become too weak to be in the general population, and no prison (that I know of) has a nursing home section. Instead, they are isolated for their own safety; and that is the greatest dread of any lifer.

    So the whole question about solitary confinement is not one of what do we do with serial killers or any kind of killer. It’s what’s done in a society in which all prisoners are lumped together, dehumanized as the evil Other; where prisoners are warehoused because no one is particularly interested in rehabilitation (despite Matthew 25:36 and the fact that, with 2 million prisoners out of a population of 300 million, one out of every 150 people knows someone who is or has been in prison); where we lock up juveniles on adult charges; and where it’s assumed there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of human beings.

    • Dave G.

      Interesting insights. I’ve also worked within prisons. And, sadly, have one too close who has been in. It’s not an easy solution, that’s for sure.

      • Eve Fisher

        The truth is, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone in prison – but shame often steps in from being able to talk about it.

    • Frank McManus

      And yet, to this day, if you mention prison conditions to a great many people, the response is that prisoners have it too easy.

      We Americans are a truly barbaric people.

      • Dave G.

        That’s because, in some ways, things are. Again, I’ve experienced prison. As my boy says, prisoners have free food, we school kids have to pay for ours. It’s a quip meant to make a point. In some ways, prisoners get what they probably shouldn’t, and in others, they are far from getting what they should. We are not a barbaric people. No more than any. The constant drumbeat of ‘we’re Americans and we suck’ is a major reason the country is slipping into the abyss. And our descendants will not – repeat, will not – thank us for our shortsightedness.

        • Eve Fisher

          True, we’re no more barbaric than any other people; which would be fine, except we keep putting ourselves on a pedestal (“The city on the hill”, “the greatest country in the world” etc.), especially when someone hints that something might should be changed…

          Anyway, what bothers me about the flip “Well, the prisoners have it too easy” rap is (1) as I said, most people know someone who’s in prison or who has been in prison, and (2) almost all prisoners are going to get out sooner or later. What do you want coming out of that prison? Someone who has been warehoused and treated like an animal? Or someone on whom some attempt has been made at rehabilitation, etc? The latter costs more money, but, as always, you get what you pay for.

          • Dave G.

            Pedestal? In some long ago age perhaps. But not today. And partly agree about the prison conditions. But partly. No time to elaborate. Thanks for the insights.

    • Gary Keith Chesterton

      God bless you for your love. I too am training up to go in. I’ve been a pen pal for a while, but I need to go in.

      • Eve Fisher

        God bless you for yours, too. It will be very rewarding. And informative. I always come back from our weekend workshops exhausted, exhilarated, depressed, excited, renewed, hopeful, and glad to have been able to do them.

  • Elaine S.

    On a somewhat related note, file this under “Department of Irony”:

    The story concerns a convicted murderer (raped and killed at least 3 teenage girls back in the 1970s) whose death penalty hearing has been delayed a full year because he is terminally ill. Obviously, the judge is hoping the guy will die from his disease before he has to decide whether or not the guy should die. Considering how badly his previous cases have been bungled — he had two murder convictions in IL thrown out due to a disallowed confession and a previous death sentence on a third murder in MO thrown out on a technicality — it’s just as well he be left to a higher authority, I suppose.