Inside the Walls: Humanism in Prison

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I never had more time to read since I’ve been in prison. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but I used to be too busy with work, home maintenance and spending time with my family. Here, we can’t access the troves of information on the internet, but there is a little library with donated copies of 50-year-old books, and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to swap books with others who buy their own and share similar interests. I’ve read numerous old and practically random books over the years including biographies, centuries of philosophers, American and world history, sociology, psychology, and the odd book of fiction here and there when it came highly recommended or I couldn’t get ahold of anything else.

I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, so I would scour the bibliographies for leads to other interesting-sounding books. I gravitated toward the subject of morals and ethics. How do we figure out what’s good or bad? What does right and wrong even mean, and how can we know the difference? What is moral progress and improvement, and why do societies fail and civilizations get destroyed?

I studied the Dutch Golden Age, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and what various experts believe led to the rise and fall of great civilizations. A subtle but common theme in all of them is an adaptive, free and humanistic philosophy. I frequently ran into the names of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Plutarch, early and important humanists who inspired numerous great thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Until fairly recently, I didn’t know humanism was much more than some archaic philosophy. It was through a brief mention in a book by Jonathan Haidt or Stephen Pinker that led me to ask someone on the outside to do an internet search on “Humanism.” The results made me realize that this is a large, modern, and diverse movement based on science, fairness, compassion, and human dignity. I immediately became part of it so I could learn more.

Over the years, some of the books that have made the biggest impact on me from a humanist perspective relate to criminal justice. Until I was prosecuted by the federal government for a crime that had nothing to do with it, I never gave the U.S. justice system much thought. I’d watched the news. I’d seen the TV shows: The good guys always win in the end and the bad guys get what they deserve. Since I got to prison, I’ve learned about the history and purpose of the prison, beginning with the Quakers in the late 1700s. I’ve learned how the prison system was used sparingly, to temporarily house the worst of the worst, for more than 150 years until the 1970s and 1980s when mass incarceration exploded. Through numerous books and articles (aside from my personal experience), I’ve learned what an irrational and inhumane process the whole system has become. How can a nation dedicated to liberty and the pursuit of happiness so easily take those very things away from so many people?

You might say that I am of course biased because I’m one of those caught up in the system. Fair enough, but a simple comparison between our system and any other will show that the U.S. is an extreme outlier. The U.S. is number one in putting people in prison, according to official data, at a rate of around 750 people per 100,000. Russia comes in a distant second with a little less than 600 per 100,000. Apartheid South Africa was the only nation to surpass the U.S., in 1983, with 853 per 100,000, but they’ve since dropped to the 300s. England, Canada, and Australia are each well under 200, Japan is around 74 and most of Europe averaged around 110 in 2008–and none of these countries are known for being rampant with crime.  The U.S. ranks fifth among national executioners behind China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq–all brutal totalitarian regimes. These are not statistics to be proud of if you value human life, and these numbers do not reflect the values of a true liberal democracy.

As a nation, we should be moving toward a humanistic approach to policing and criminal justice. The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a harsh light on the adversarial relationship the police have with citizens, but we also need to recognize and address the inhumane and outdated approach of our 200-year-old adversarial justice system. Renowned scholars and authors such as Michelle Alexander, Marie Gottschalk, Mark Godsey, Jonathan Simon, Bryan Stevenson, Shane Bauer, James Forman Jr., Baz Dreisinger and so many others have demonstrated clearly in their books and articles the many, many ways in which our system is not working for people, and how it could be greatly improved.

In their books and articles, John Pfaff and Emily Bazelon have focused on the importance of prosecutor reform because prosecutors are the ones with the power to decide whether to send people to prison for an eternity or to opt for solutions that are better for victims, better for perpetrators and thus better for society. Howard Zehr and Danielle Sered focus on the process of restorative justice, which is about healing and reconciliation for everyone involved rather than our current system of simply using victims to obtain harsher sentences and making the perpetrator as miserable as possible. As it is, our system does nothing to make victims whole, it just makes perpetrators worse, and therefore leaves society worse off.

The U.S. government locks up far too many people for far too many things for far too long. In criminal justice circles, U.S. incarceration is known as human warehousing. As these prisoners age, they need more and more medical attention to deal with natural chronic conditions, and the costs to society increases exponentially. It was calculated that it would be cheaper to send a prisoner to Princeton University than to keep them locked up. That has to make one wonder: Which person would we prefer returning to our community, a promising university graduate or a resentful and degraded prison graduate? As humanists, we should be building people up, not breaking them down.

As a university graduate myself, I have always enjoyed and valued learning. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, which inspires me to learn more. But education is inconvenient for prison administrators. Their job is to keep people locked up and uncomfortable. If it weren’t for specific laws that direct them to provide prisoners with food, water, fresh air, and a high school equivalency, they wouldn’t. I was pleased to hear recently that Pell Grants for prisoners were reinstated, so those who want to pursue higher education and improve themselves can. It will be an uphill battle fighting all the prison’s red tape, so it’s only for the most determined and persistent.

During this COVID pandemic, we’ve heard people out there anecdotally comparing their isolation to being in prison. Let me assure you it’s not. What people may not realize is that prison has gotten proportionately worse because of COVID. Prisons are crowded and isolated communities that are completely dependent on the prison administration for their health and safety. Rather than simply manage the limited staff (who are the only people who can bring the virus into the facility), the administration chose to lock down all 1,500 of us and did nothing to limit contact with potentially contagious staff.

We have been locked down since April 1, 2020. We haven’t been allowed outside, aside from brief walks to collect our occasional meals, so we don’t get fresh air, sunlight, or physical exercise. We can no longer go to the little library here for books or news, and we can’t see people we know from any of the other units. If anyone in a unit shows symptoms, the whole unit is locked down and further deprived of food, communication with family, and any time out of the two-man cell. We are deprived of information and kept in a state of ignorance and confusion, and therefore so are our families who can’t visit us and don’t hear from us when expected.

Prisons are miserable places. There is no fair and compassionate treatment, and no regard for basic human dignity. Maybe we can’t do without prisons, but we certainly should be able to warehouse many fewer people. The ones who must endure prison should have the opportunity to improve themselves, and victims should be given opportunities to heal. Society should be able to benefit from an offender’s release. The Quakers may have, with the best of intentions, started this mess, but maybe, through reason and compassion, the humanists can help start to get us out of it.