What Do We Owe All the Valjeans?

Since Les Mis seems to prompt endless reprises on this blog, you won’t be surprised to find I’m over at First Things today talking about Valjean, Javert, and what we owe to the prisoners in our criminal justice system.

When Jean Valjean appears for the first time in the stage musical Les Misérables, he is in the process of being paroled, and he is in an argument with his former jailer. When Inspector Javert barks out “You are a thief,” Valjean replies, “I stole a loaf of bread.” For Valjean, his crime is an action in the past, regretted and repented. From Javert’s point of view, the crime isn’t something Valjean did; it’s something he is, now and forever.

Our criminal justice system frequently takes the same view. Over five million citizens are denied the right to vote because they have committed a felony. Disenfranchisement is not akin to parole check-ins or other prudent defenses against recidivism. It is a denial of the former prisoner’s membership in the body politic.

When a prisoner’s sentence is finished, the debt between him and society is settled. The time served made restitution for the crime committed, so now the criminal justice system must reintegrate him into full participation in society. If prison does not prepare prisoners to become full, happy, healthy citizens, we have not held up our end of the bargain. The social contract and the bounds of civil society demand this much of us.

Go to First Things’s On the Square feature to read the rest of the essay and to find out which duties and relationships ask even more of us than the social contract.

– — –

As bonus content for the blog readers: I was struck by different things on my three viewings of the Les Miserables movie, but I was always particularly drawn in to the big forgiveness scenes (the Bishop with Valjean, Valjean with Fantine (and vice versa), and Valjean with Javert).  For the week after viewing number three, I kept returning to one line in the encounter between Valjean and Javert outside the barricade.

Valjean says to Javert: “You are wrong, and always have been wrong.”  It’s easy, on the page, to read those as words of condemnation, but, when well-staged (as it is in the movie), I think it’s clear that Valjean is offering this line as a gift to Javert.  Thinking about the lines reminded me of an article I’d read a long time ago in The New Yorker about the use of mirror therapy for phantom limb pain.

Among them is an experiment that Ramachandran performed with volunteers who had phantom pain in an amputated arm. They put their surviving arm through a hole in the side of a box with a mirror inside, so that, peering through the open top, they would see their arm and its mirror image, as if they had two arms. Ramachandran then asked them to move both their intact arm and, in their mind, their phantom arm—to pretend that they were conducting an orchestra, say. The patients had the sense that they had two arms again. Even though they knew it was an illusion, it provided immediate relief. People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open; phantom arms in painfully contorted positions could relax.

Valjean isn’t blaming Javert for living in error, but he’s trying to draw his attention to the way he stands athwart the world, refusing mercy.  He’s inviting him to notice that he could live differently, that he might have the chance to unclench, that his constant feeling of opposition isn’t the natural way to be.

I kept coming back to this plea in prayer, particularly in my daily examen, to ask for the grace and desire to hear “You are wrong, and always have been wrong” where needed, and to accept this insight as a gift; the only possible way to avert: “…and always will be wrong.”

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Kristin

    The line that resonates with me the most in the Valjean/Javert dialogue in Les Mis is when Valjean says to Javert, “You did your duty, nothing more”, which, in the context of the scene, should be a positive statement (i.e., I’m not upset with you for “hunt[ing] [me] across the years”) but it isn’t. It’s almost damning, because Valjean suggests that Javert has never tried to be anything more than he is, and has never tried to change and mortify himself into something better.

    • Arizona Mike

      It also parallels what the Bishop told the police who brought Valjean back with the stolen silver. So much of what passes between Valjean and Javert has parallels to the forgiveness Valjean saw demonstrated by the Bishop.

  • Mike

    Ya, never understood why criminals would lose the right to vote. It seems like one of those basic God-given rights that not even the state can take away. I would even go so far as to say that I can’t think of a single crime worthy of the punishment. It seems just that basic.

    Agree, the justice system can be doing more to rehabilitate but too often, these days, it seems, this ends up meaning one thing, namely indulging the prisoners. Personally I can’t think of anything more uplifting and noble than an honest day’s work but too often this is interpreted to mean slave labor chain-gang style. Also, I think prisoners should have access to all the good books they want but not necessarily to a free education, if they’ve committed heinous crimes. There have been many cases of abuse that turn the stomach.

    • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

      In America, though, voting isn’t seen as a right, it’s seen as a privilege, which can be taken away. We don’t have universal suffrage to begin with–kids can’t vote. You have to be 18, and even that’s a recent invention. “Qualified citizens” can vote in the US. (See the SCOTUS case Alexander v. Mineta)

      • Mike

        I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize it was seen in that light. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that but I still think that everyone, exclusing yes young adults (ie. under 30 LOL, just kidding), should be able to cast a vote. Perhaps not on every issue but at least for the big ones like Congress and the President. The will of the people and all that and they are still the people.

        • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

          Whew I just made the cutoff! :)

    • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

      I don’t see voting as a basic right. It’s a civic right and not everyone who is part of the polity is part of the civis.

      • Mike

        Well then you should at least be able to vote for someone who represents the people not in the polity, no?

    • deiseach

      I can understand taking the right to vote away, because the idea is that you have injured civil society by your actions and so as part of your punishment, you cannot participate in the instruments of civil cohesion until you’ve “paid your debt”. You’ve injured the bonds of unity and until they are repaired or restored you cannot be a fully participating member.

      As to pampering prisoners, I don’t know. Years ago, I was on a training course with a guy who worked as a crewman on oil tankers – one of those huge vessels where, as he told me, if you were going to an upper deck you would need to bring your lunch with you as it genuinely took that long to get from a lower to an upper area. And he also said something which, although we weren’t talking about prison, stuck with me all this time; I was asking what was it like to be on a vessel that huge, and he gestured around us and said “Well, imagine being stuck in this room for weeks and weeks.”

      Sure, prisoners may have a lot of amenities, but they are at loss of their liberty. Look around you – would you choose to be stuck in the room (or building) you are in, no matter how comfortable, for weeks? Months? Imagine that right now, where you are is where you are confined to for six months. You can’t go out the door for a walk anywhere you like (you may be able to go out into the back for a while every day), or go to a concert, or socialise as you like. You can’t choose your own meals, even if you are getting fed well. You have some limits on what and when you can use a computer; you can’t just phone a friend or have any visitor you like when you like – and you certainly can’t go visiting anyone else!

      Even as comfortable as I currently am, I wouldn’t like to lose all choice or possibility like that.

  • Kristin

    This may be off-topic, but I’d be interested to know what LL’s views on the drug war are, after reading her article. It seems like it has imprisoned many for victimless crimes, and some Libertarian candidates like Gary Johnson have argued that it should be treated as a health issue in need of treatment, rather than a crime against society.

    • leahlibresco

      Yeah, I’m mostly with Johnson.

      • Mike

        Mostly, so am I , but not entirely. I have enough first hand experience to convince me that no matter what people say marijuana IS a gateway drug and will always be. I’ve seen it become a gateway many times. Plus who starts on the hard stuff without first having a sip of wine.

        Plus I honestly don’t think that alcohol alters personality and mind in quite the same was as soft drugs. There is a small but critical difference IMHO.

        Is the war on drugs a loser right now, yes; do I want soft drugs legalized NO! Should they be decriminalized the way most of them are already, yes, maybe. But 10 years in prison for joint is wrong and unjust.

        • ACN

          “Plus who starts on the hard stuff without first having a sip of wine.”

          Lots of people. My first drink was straight whiskey. I am not a problem drinker.

          • Mike

            Really? Whiskey, first drink? Maybe you started later than me LOL.

        • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

          I agree with ACN. There is this tiny thing called self-control….
          As for marijuana–it has documented medical uses. It’s definitely not more dangerous than some of the drugs that are commonly dispensed for pain in hospitals everyday.

          • Mike

            I think that placebos were found to be just as effective as the marijuana but I could be wrong. Besides, moderate alcohol use has health benefits that doesn’t mean we should start prescribing it.

            More importantly, however, stoners are boring recluses while drunks are very very often quite enjoyable and plain fun.

          • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

            Having had awful nausea and vomiting during one of my many hospital stays, placebos don’t work, let me tell you. You KNOW when it’s working, because most anti-nausea drugs also knock you out. I had a nurse tell me , point blank: “If marijuana was legal, we’d give it to you.”

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      It just means we wait until they do commit a crime against society. Many drug addicts are not in jail for drugs. They are in jail for stealing money to buy drugs or for violence committed while on drugs or for crimes committed in a drug deal gone bad or for neglecting children because of drugs …

      If someone is a good candidate for treatment there are programs there. At least there are where I live. The trouble is many are bad candidates. They don’t admit they have a problem. They are just not ready to make a serious change in their life.

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com Turmarion

    I don’t remember where I read this, but a few years ago I heard of a survey they did in several countries. They asked a hypothetical question: If a person has been an employee at a company for many years with a spotless record and then does something wrong (embezzlement, insubordination, etc.), should he be fired or kept on with appropriate action to rectify the fault? In short, what counts more: twenty years of irreproachable service, or one foul up? Americans tended to answer “fire him”, and Asians tended to say “keep him and fix the problem”. I thought that was interesting. The same story pointed out that in our culture if a person has been irreproachable for decades and then commits a fault, we tend never to trust him again; but if a person has been untrustworthy, criminal, etc. for years and then does a major good that good doesn’t count against the past and we don’t trust him, either. Strange asymmetry–I guess we all have a lot of Javert in us….

    • Mike

      I find this to be true at work: what have you done for me lately is the guideing principle.

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  • deiseach

    Javert’s attitude was not confined to 19th century France; it’s represented in this extract from E.W. Hornung’s “The Crime Doctor” published in 1914 where the Home Secretary, who is portrayed as a reformer, speaks on the topic:

    “The Secretary of State smiled again, but this time with some sympathy and much less restraint. He was beginning to see some method in what had seemed at first unmitigated mania, and to take some interest in a point of view at least novel and entertaining. But the prison system was not to be attacked, even in terms of fantastic levity, without protest from its official champion.

    “Prisons, my dear Doctor Dollar, exist for the benefit of those who keep out of them rather than those who will insist on getting in. Of course, the ideal thing would be to benefit both sides; and that’s what we’re aiming at all the time. It isn’t our fault if a man who gets into quod is a marked man ever after; he shouldn’t get into quod.”

    The trouble being that once you are a “marked man”, very often there was no choice but to fall back into crime, as the police often kept a watch on released prisoners, informed their employers (should they find work) that they were ex-cons (and often they were immediately sacked from their jobs) and they generally were regarded with distrust and suspicion so that they couldn’t go straight.

    Yes, there are habitual criminals and career criminals. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if we as a society are not willing to intervene when kids at risk are young enough to be helped, we will still end up paying for it by means of the courts and the prisons.

    • Darren

      Here, here!

      “Yes, there are habitual criminals and career criminals. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if we as a society are not willing to intervene when kids at risk are young enough to be helped, we will still end up paying for it by means of the courts and the prisons.”

      Innefficient and unjust to not do all in our powers to make the road to ruin as narrow as possible.

      • Mike

        How about intervening when almost half of all kids are now born out of wed-lock?

        • deiseach

          I’d pretty much say “Yes!” Support from the get-go, both for the mother (or indeed, the father) and the kids is so important.

          I’ve probably banged on about it before, but working in a clerical capacity in a local government education system, which meant splitting time between the high school (as you Americans would call it), the early school leavers’ programme, literacy programme, adult and continuing education and the main office, I’ve seen a fair share of problem students.

          The school has an intake of a lot of behaviourally challenged (let us say) students, and they do great work in support. But the breakdown/liberalisation (take your pick) of Irish society over the past thirty years (I’m counting from the 80s, when the Sexual Revolution etc. really hit Ireland – we’re always about twenty years behind the times) means that, quite apart from kids who come from ‘ordinary’ families who have learning difficulties/psychological assessments, there’s a lot of kids with single parents, separated parents, never-married parents, one or both parents up and gone and the kid shuffled around grandparents/aunts and uncles/other family members; mothers with children by multiple partners (yes, even in Holy Catholic Ireland), kids with learning difficulties who get little or no help until they arrive to enrol (things were getting better regarding services during the Celtic Tiger heyday, but now the money’s gone, it’s going to be cuts to the bone once again for these services) and drugs/drink/suicide/criminality problems.

          So I have seen pupils from the main school who – for one reason or another – drop out early and are transferred to the early school leaver programme to give them some kind of chance at an education. And I’ve seen the effect of marijuana and other ‘soft’ drugs (I can tell you one case where it definitely was a gateway drug, as the girl in question went on to heroin and ended up in court with a good chance of going to prison) on these kids, who are not one bit motivated by any of the usual inducements to stay clean, get an education, go on to college (not at all in the scheme of possibilities as far as they’re concerned), get a job (ditto).

          And a lot of it is down to parents who are too busy looking after their own interests and not enough in their duties as parents. This is not to bash every single/separated parent; there are many who do try and support their kids, work with the school, put in the effort. But there are definitely people out there who I wouldn’t let in charge of a dog, let alone a child.

          And the worst is that you can see the trajectory of what’s going to happen. Yo can tell that Joe or Sally who is always being marched out to the behavioural discipline room, or who throws a strop and marches out of the classroom on his/her own accord, and who is absent more days than attending school, and who may or may not have a revolving door of social workers handling their cases (I remember one at-risk girl who, over two years, had about four different social workers which meant that just as soon as the school got to know one and the social worker was up to speed, they were moved and another one was put on the case, and it was all back to square one again) and who you know is going to drop out early.

          And there isn’t much, maybe not any, family support but there is a lot of ‘peer pressure’ (or what in my day was called ‘bad company’) and even if you get that kid onto the early school leaver programme, they may self-sabotage. And then you know that the next step is petty crime, and an appearance in court, and then more court, and then prison… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the court reports in the local paper, seen a name, and gone “Ah! One of ours!”

          That’s the worst thing about the present economic austerity: the support services, the early intervention which makes so much difference, is going to be slashed, reduced or even done away with (e.g. cuts in the number of Special Needs Assistants, who really do make a big difference to dealing with ‘problem’ kids and their behavioural/learning needs) and the pennies saved there are going to be the pounds spent later on police, courts and prison time.

  • deiseach

    Something completely off-topic to cheer myself up after that last screed; I am currently listening to the national classical music station, playing the weekly programme of sacred music, and the announcer has just said “Epiphany music from the millennium before last”.

    Not year, decade or even century, but millennium. I had to stop and think for a moment before I remembered “Oh yeah, we’re in the third millennium now”.

    Now you know what is meant, the next time you hear about something being done “in/on Vatican time” :-)

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar

    If you think prisoners are pampered, I challenge you to go read These Stone Walls.

    @Randy, sorry, nope. What with possession being a felony, and a Three-strikes law, we wind up with LOTS of people incarcerated for mere possession and use. And it would be a lot easier for an honest person to afford this crap if it wasn’t illegal. I expect re-legalization, and as with alcohol prohibition, I expect use to spike afterwards. But (again like alcohol prohibition) it will still do far less damage than incarceration.

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