Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When the Punishment Is the Crime

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When the Punishment Is the Crime

Article excerpt

Our policies may be to blame for the overcrowding in our prisons.

IT IS PERHAPS A TRUISM THAT A SOCIETY CAN BE JUDGED by the quality of its social institutions. Early in the century that just ended, the unfortunate people considered out of sync with the rest of society or the genuinely mentally ill were locked into insane asylums, there to languish more or less forever.

Those with literally no means to support themselves were shuffled off to poor houses, poor farms, or work houses out of a Dickens novel.

Convicted lawbreakers, of course, received the shortest shrift of all from their fellow citizens. Lock them up and throw away the key was the rule. And most prisons and jails were unspeakably wretched. "Whatever they get is too good for them" was the prevailing sentiment.

But over the years dedicated reformers brought about a more civilized, if not altogether altruistic, approach to institutionalization in the nation. Poor houses were replaced by government welfare programs. The mentally ill are still at the mercy of the "there but for the grace of God" crowd, confined or not confined, willy-nilly, sometimes for budgetary reasons.

In some states a while back mental residential hospitals were closed. Their patients became a diaspora charged with making regular, voluntary visits to regional centers for their medication and, occasionally, the counseling they needed. The program worked for some but not all.

The reform of our penal system, however, is our proudest boast. Why, almost without exception, our prisons and most of our jails are clean. The carbolic smell of the cleaning substances tells us that. Most American prisons provide uniforms and shoes and at least occasional shower facilities. Medical services and libraries of a sort are usually on hand.

But, sadly, we have yet to reach a consensus about the purpose of our prison system. Is it to rehabilitate, to punish, or simply to get the lawbreakers off the streets and out of our hair?

Rehabilitation was once the favorite mantra. Let's change the antisocial people we lock up for the better. Let's teach the illiterates to read and write. Let's make them better people when they return to society. Laudable goals, certainly. But few U.S. prisons today have the time or personnel to carry out such programs. …

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