Monday, May 23, 2011

On Bent Knee

Today's Supreme Court ruling on the inhumanity of California's prisons reminded me to look into the issue of prison guard pay.  I found this somewhat old, yet interesting piece . I imagine its general theme hasn't changed much.

Basically, it had average salaries at $64k, with an average of $15k in overtime pay.  What I find interesting though, is the complexity of issues surrounding the overtime pay.  Apparently they've had terrible staffing problems.  I think being a prison guard is probably pretty tough - $65k average seems a bit high, but not unreasonable, certainly considering working conditions.  Yet add in the overtime and the public is pretty pissed.  But isn't that a management issue?

Honestly, prisons just seem like an expensive enterprise, especially considering how poorly they function as "correctional facilities".

So, lateral thinking here would point towards reducing inmate populations, and looking at the communities from which inmates largely come.  I work with children from such communities, and there seems to be almost zero state involvement in pre-emptive treatment.  I hear horror stories from kids about their home lives, making me question how they could wind up anywhere at all but prison.

The driving force behind keeping the state out of intervention in these communities seems less a question of efficacy, or even cost (see: willingness to spend on the much more expensive incarceration option), but one of behavioral philosophy.  An agency equivalent with intact and advantaged communities is assumed that doesn't exist. When choices are made that produce negative outcomes, the assumption is that there was a moral, not cognitive failing.  So when parents raise children who are destined for prison, society assumes that it was a conscious choice.

Yet it never is.  No parent chooses to create dysfunctional children.  Just as no one chooses to become an addict.  They simply make poor choices, that then lead to negative outcomes, the consequences of which are greater than they could have possibly imagined.  In the case of addiction, if addicts understood the dysfunctional patterns to which they were falling prey, they would not have become addicts in the first place.  But the "ball", so to speak, almost always got rolling long before they reached anything like adult maturation.  Complex behavioral, emotional, cognitive patterns were being laid down often times in adolescence, or even earlier - sometimes in utero.

I often wonder whether social intransigence on necessary interventions ultimately has less to do with any tangible rationalization, than mainly a balking at the seemingly incomprehensible complexity of the socialization process.  Especially when one hears of a horrible crime committed, there seems little solace in the notion that there is no clear line of causality, that instead the individual was caught in a complex web of events bearing down from countless angles and pressures.  Our attachment to the retributive impulse seems to bark away such intricacies as "excuses", instead of recognizing that their reality is entirely consistent with our pain and frustration over the tragedy of the crime.  We can both feel the loss and anger, as well as place blame on the individual and the events which created him or her.

But much philosophical ground is lost in the word blame. For when we say we blame an individual, we generally mean that we are referring to a conscious state of moral choice, wherein an action’s consequences are assumed to have been evaluated in moral terms. Yet we know that so much of what drives any human is unconscious; every choice we make cannot be said to be thought out with full consciousness. We know that certain individuals possess more conscious awareness of their actions than others. This is what is meant by the term agency – the degree to which an individual is able to summon his or her human capital and apply it towards thought and action. We accept this as a truism with children. Their obvious cognitive limitations demand from us patience and understanding. We then assume some sort of switch is flipped in late adolescence, past the point which all actions are somehow fully-considered.

Of course there is social utility in defining some minimally arbitrary state of adulthood in which individuals are granted certain rights, as well as held to certain responsibilities. Yet this utility is quite a separate thing from actual assignment of moral culpability. Our criminal justice system is designed to establish whether a crime was committed, not why. Obviously, this would be too great a task. Our understanding of human nature is vague at best, and no where near enough data could exist to determine anything like definitive culpability. What’s more, blame, to use that nebulous verb, would immediately begin to extend outwards, necessarily incorporating family members, friends and all relevant formative social interactions – clearly a social inconvenience to put it mildly.

But what it seems we can do is draw a larger circle of blame – or shall we say accountability? – around the perpetrator. Into this we inevitably include ourselves, along with our sense of social solidarity. Unfortunately, we must also take responsibility for some of the blame. We cannot simply look down upon the criminal, using him as a reference point for our own sanctimony. We must be drawn to him, to meet him at his level and walk with him towards his fate, whatever utility we find appropriate in our social designs.

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