A Small Meditation on Fitting the Punishment to the Crime

I’ve been thinking about various responses I’ve read to news reports of the Unitarian Universalist and allies protest at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious “tent city” outdoor jail last week.

A common theme expressed among those less than impressed with the protests is, hey, they’re criminals and they’re just getting what they deserve.

And a subset of the commentators cite being military who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and speak of the terrible heat they endured while serving as a reason to not feel particularly sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners.

That second point is particularly disturbing for me.

There is no doubt those who served and continue to serve in these military actions have been subjected to terrible things. And I feel nothing but sympathy for them and gratitude for their willingness to put their lives on the line for something larger than themselves, specifically for the ideals of our republic, whatever the wisdom of those who make the decisions to enter into or sustain specific military actions.

And, truthfully, I’m a bit surprised that some of them would make the argument their suffering justifies extending the suffering of others in ways so alien to our cultural standards. Honestly it makes me wonder if all those who make this argument have in fact been among those who have volunteered and served. It has been my observation that in general those who suffer do not wish that suffering upon others. But let’s say it is true and those who say this are who they say they are.

Another argument I’ve heard in favor of the tent jail is how it is cost effective in a time of serious financial shortfalls.

And there is another and more common response, of just not caring what happens to those convicted of crimes.

There is a callousness in these attitudes that chills my blood. Even when standing in Arizona’s heat.

Elsewhere there are studies of the problems with our current criminal justice system, including the sheer numbers of convicts relative to other nations, and specifically of who ends up in our jails and prisons.

And what happens when people go to jail, and who they are as they are released back into our communities.

Simply put, our criminal justice system is rotten. And I ask people to look a little more closely before simply agreeing with the throw ‘em away argument, not to mention questions of fitting punishment to crime.

As I see it, the Arpaio tent jail is an affront to human dignity. I think it is probably in violation of various laws. And if not, it should be.

But, what is it that allows this sort of thing to happen? And to continue? After all, this tent jail and the chain gangs with it have been in place for two decades & the architect of the jail has been re-elected five times, and counting…

Here’s where I really worry.

There was a meme going around the web not all that long ago. A bit of advice to young women dating. “If the man you’re dating is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, he is not a nice man.”

In the Christian Gospel as recounted by Matthew, the good rabbi is said to have said, “whatsoever you do to the least, you do to me.” While not a Christian, I find this caution worth noting. As a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist I am deeply aware that what is done to one, is indeed, done to all.

This is a core ethical principle. I suggest it opens the way of hope for humanity and our world.

And there is a corollary here.

If we do not see the connections, we are in trouble. Deep trouble.

And this tent jail is a canary in the mine.

Our communal sense of our connections seem to be fraying.

Our communal sense of obligation to each other appears to be disintegrating.

And this tent jail seems to be a sign of the times.

And they are not good signs…

But, and there is a but.

We don’t have to follow this trail down. We can stop. We can assess.

Our lives are in our hands. We do have choices in these matters.

And we can make decisions that will move us in another direction.

If we want to…

If we want to…


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