April 24, 1996

Column 10

It must be an election year again. Not long ago, a bunch of politicians gathered outside the gates of San Quentin to make promises to the press and group of supporters that if they are elected, they will hurry up the execution process, and of course, that they will get tough on crime. When I hear a politician promising these things, it is something that leaves me scratching my head in amazement. It indicates one of two things to me. One, that the politician has never been to a prison, except to stand outside the gates so the news media can take pictures of them, which is supposed to make us believe that they are tough on crime because they give speeches outside of a prison. The other possibility is that they are so desperate to get elected that they are willing to trade people's lives in order to get votes.

Since the late 1960's or early 1970's, politicians have been getting tough on crime. The laws have been made tougher, the courts have made it tougher for defendants to defend themselves (unless they have lots of money) and the prisons have become tougher. Yet, with all of this getting tough, the rate of crime has progressively gotten worse and worse. So, if they have gotten tougher in all areas, yet the crime rate has gone up in direct relation with the get tough campaigns. It would make a logical person look at it and see that even though the politicians are doing, as the public wants, they are not fixing the problems. It seems that revenge and punishment are more important then trying to rehabilitate a person so they do not come back to prison again, once they get out. A slogan that is catchy sounding such as three strikes and you're out seems to get more support then the idea of when a person is sent to prison, lets work with them so there won't be a second or third strike.

It seems that the public gets very pissed off when a person gets out of prison and commits more crime . . . in many cases, a very violent and horrible crime that shocks people. People start screaming for longer sentences and harder prison time, but they ignore the fact that this person just went through the prison system, so why wasn't something done to work with them to insure that they would get out and lead a productive and law abiding life?

I can't help but wonder how many of you that are reading this would turn out if, for some reason, you ended up in prison to do a stretch of time. In this climate of getting tough on crime, it is not as outrageous of a idea as you may think. How many of you have done things in the past that when you look back on it, you shake your head and wonder what in the hell you were thinking when you did it? Well, there are many, many people sitting here in the prisons who did the same thing, yet they got caught and ended up inside, doing time. These are usually good people who just did something that was stupid and they didn't think about it before doing it.

Now, try to imagine how you would turn out if you were sent to do time in a place where the environment was totally alien to anything you have ever been exposed to in the past. A place where violence is not something that you see on TV, but is a way of life that you see everyday in real life. A place where slowly, day by day, you lose a part of what you are as a person and what-you are as a human being. What is there to replace it? I don't think it is hard to figure out. When you spend a few years in a world in which you lose a part of your soul everyday and it is replaced with the instinct to survive and in order to do so, you must become hardened to violence and being compassionate is something that is taken as a sign of weakness and will only make others think that you would be an easy mark, you change into something far worse then what you were when you got sent there.

How many of you would want to have someone who just got out of prison after years of living in a environment like that, move in next door to you? After all, the person who gets out of prison is a product of what you endorsed . . . a tougher justice system, so I would imagine that you would like to see what it is that your system has created. Or maybe it should be mandatory that when a person gets out, they should have to live next door to the prosecutors, cops, judges and politicians that all had a part in sending this person to prison for x-number of years. After all, they should be eager to enjoy the product of their labors. I would be willing to bet that if this was to happen, you would see changes in attitudes so quickly that it would make your head spin and perhaps you would start seeing real solutions to the problems, instead of the usual pandering and rhetoric that you see now.

Another thought that I have is that in order to make people who have a significant role in the laws and prisons should be required to spend at least one week, every three months, living inside a prison. That way they would be aware of what the real problems are. Of course, you'll never see anything like that happen. It's easier to get votes by playing on peoples fears, anger and hatred, rather then trying to find real and practical solutions to the problems. I do know that almost every person that is in prison doesn't want to go back, but they do need help. Rehabilitation may seem like a luxury until you look at what it costs society not to do so.

That's all I have to say this time, I don't expect you to agree with what I'm saying, but think about it. After all, when you send a person to a place where they lose their self-respect and respect for others, do you think they will Ret out and have respect for you or your property.