Jailing people we are upset with

Frontline had a show the other night regarding prisons in America. I only caught a bit of it. Sometimes someone says something that sticks with you for a while and that is what happened here. They were talking to a prison official (I think) in Kentucky (I think, hey I was falling asleep). I’m going to probably misquote him but he basically said “we are jailing people we are upset with and not people we are afraid of”. That struck me at the time as a good sentence. Given that this person looked to be in and dealing with prisons all day most days, I think his thought deserved some consideration. (Additional context, some of the people that were a focus for the program seemed largely to have behavioral issues.) My first temptation was to think that while it was a catchy thought it surely was oversimplifying things.

My next thought though was about why we jail people in the first place. Jailing people we are afraid of makes sense in that context. We want to separate someone who has shown that they represent a danger to others. So we can carve off a piece of the prison population that is easily explainable. I think you can have an extended argument about who we are afraid of but that isn’t where I want to head. Of the people who don’t fall into the group of ‘afraid of’ that are in jail, a chunk of that doesn’t unreasonably fall in to the category of people we are upset with. I think the key follow on thought here is that for people that we are upset with, we don’t know how to deal with them. Obviously in putting them in jail we are punishing them. That seemingly is the extent to which we are able to imagine dealing with them. I know this unfairly generalizes some options that exist apart from prison.

I don’t really have a point beyond this other than to underline that thought. We are responding to people that we aren’t afraid of with the same tool that we use for people we fear. I understand that we either haven’t thought of good alternatives or have been unwilling to embrace them. It is a very difficult area. This seems like an interesting place to look.

I’d be curious to understand how others dissect the thought about upset/afraid. Is it a misframing? Too simplistic? It feels to me like it comes at this item from a slightly different angle than normal. I’m sure there is plenty of ink that has been spilled on the topic of punishment and jail but I wonder how much really wades in on the not knowing what to do. Holding ourselves in uncertainty is not something we are good at.

PS In looking back at my misquote, I don’t think he was saying that we aren’t jailing people we are afraid of but rather that we are jailing people we are upset with in addition to people we fear.

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2 comments
  1. cgoeson said:

    Interesting… I don’t have time to do the research here, but in the past, I think jails were more about punishment than about keeping those we fear off the street. Capital punishment took care of those we feared. To bring this back to the present though, We had “white collar prisons” for punishment for a long time, but when the public started to understand what they were, there was a backlash by the people who were wronged by those criminals. I think Madoff deserves to be in prison, but I have no fear of him at all.

    • That’s kind of an interesting response. Its the phrase deserves to be in prison that I find curious. To unpack that statement I would read it as Madoff deserves (deserve could have its own paragraph) to have his freedom taken away, be fed poor food, live in a small space with occasional opportunities to go out to a larger confined space, be at threat of violence from other people in the same space, etc. I’m forgetting more details that should be included in an exhaustive list. Be in prison = all that stuff. The thing is, that exhaustive list is pretty much the same for Madoff as it is for Manson as it is for anyone else. The main variable is how long, though yes, there are degrees of prison. All of which by the way comes at an expense. I guess I’m thinking along the lines of it not being a very imaginative solution when the response is the same across a very wide variety of contexts. That sort of suggests to me there is something here that hasn’t been cracked yet. I know that is fuzzy.

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