The American Penal System
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One of my favorite authors, Khaled Hosseini, begins his latest book, ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ with a quote from Rumi:
Out beyond ideas
Of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
This quote beautifully encapsulates the sometimes nebulous state of right and wrong. Something that our judicial system and polite American society make little room for. It is critical for all societies to enforce laws. Lawlessness breeds chaos. Without laws the weak will be exploited. Without laws every facet of civilized society will be cast into chaos. Having laws however, is not synonymous with penalization. Punishment has almost become an American way of life. Punishment becomes the answer to even the slightest infraction. While we do have rehabilitation programs, and mental health facilities in this country, the number of prisons and prisoners far outpace them in growth and utilization for violent and nonviolent offenders.
Incarceration Rates in America
The United States has the highest incarcerated population of any other country in the world with over 2.2 million. There are another 4.8 million people on parole or probation, bringing the number of people under control of our penal system to nearly 7 million. There are 4,575 prisons in the United States, more than any other country by far. Russia comes in second with 1,029. These astronomical levels of penalization are the result of “tough on crime” initiatives that began in the 1980s. The current prison population is 8 times higher now than it was in the 1970s, while studies suggest this has had very little effect on crime rates. The “tough on crime” initiatives gave us the “war on drugs” and the “three strikes law” that have in turn given us mandatory sentences for certain offenses. These mandatory sentences give judges no discretion in handing prison time for those found guilty. There is no room for mercy, allowances for circumstance, or alternatives. There has been some movement in recent years to overturn some of these mandatory sentencing laws, but this has more to do with the financial toll of imprisoning so many people than it does with granting mercy. We are still the only industrialized country in the western hemisphere to still have capital punishment. This seems incongruent in a country that is home to the “Free” and the Brave. So the question is, why would a nation as progressive as this, implement such Machiavellian standards for punishment?
American Culture of Success and Penalization for Failure
American society places a high value on personal responsibility, upward mobility, success, perseverance, and “winning.” But where do we place weakness? How can we have the strong without the weak? What about failing? We cannot have success without failure. What about sacrifice? For every successful person there are at least two people who sacrificed their own needs for someone else, inevitably making them less “successful” themselves. Ask yourself this question, where do we place these people in the hierarchy of American society?
Mass shootings are almost an exclusively American phenomenon that cannot be traced to guns alone. We live in a culture that does not teach us how to fail. As a society we do not make room for acknowledgement in our vulnerability at failing. When the topic of failure is broached you will most likely see or hear something along the line of “no excuses”, or try harder. There was an interview by CBS Los Angeles where forensic Psychologist Dr. Kris Mohandle is quoted as saying in regards to mass shooters:
“At least part of the motivation is fame without achievement. At least part of their motivation is to be remembered. They are people who felt insignificant”
As Americans, we often send the message to our youth that if you fail, if you are not as successful as your peers or the media says you should be, you are simply “less”. This feeling of powerlessness is THE catalyst for all rage.
We do not teach or children how to process failure or vulnerability because as a society we do not make allowances for this. Our society must change its consciousness. We must humble ourselves and accept that we are ALL that “less” that we fear. In that smallness there is grace. We are all here because our life was granted to us. We live because we trust in each other to value our lives. There are not enough weapons to buy anyone out of that vulnerability. Even after we arm ourselves, after we rage against those who dare try to take our power by taking our life, will still face the ravages of illness and time. We can “race for the cure” but death will always run faster in the end. Accepting our vulnerability and our smallness inevitably grants some measure of peace.
Gun Control Debate
The truth is in the battle for gun control, our vulnerability in the fact that we can be killed by another person will not change either way. The truth is, 60% of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. More people die from despair than violence as far as gun deaths are concerned. As a culture Americans do not care for addressing this. That is “weakness”, “failure”, “giving up”, “laziness”, and worst of all admitting defeat. Addressing the massive number of suicides that continue to outpace gang violence and all other gun deaths is less likely to galvanize people into action. There is no one to punish in that scenario, no one to incarcerate. It is harder to quantify a “win” on that issue. When someone commits suicide it is rarely even mentioned at that person’s eulogy. It is shameful, that person clearly didn’t “win.” They committed the ultimate sin of giving up.
Accepting Vulnerability and Moving Toward Humility
Those who have the audacity to fail must be somehow punished in this country. “How dare you be weak, I’m not allowed to be weak, why are you?” The truth is we are all vulnerable. Regardless of how strong you may appear at any point in time we are all small and weak to some degree. It only takes one job loss, one illness, one tragedy, one failure, one false accusation, one merciless judge, one convalescent nurse, or one stock market crash, to remind you what has been true all along, or more accurately, reveal to the world the thing you’ve known innately and feared resided within you since birth; powerlessness.
We tell our children if they work hard enough they can have anything they want. They can be anything. They can make all their childhood dreams come true. Well, the truth is this; sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you will fail and sometimes that failure will be final. There will be pain and there will be rejection, and there will be loss. We cannot “win” our way out of that. We cannot take someone else’s “win” either. What you can do is redefine “winning.” Accept your “smallness.” Accept that someone so small and inconsequential in the large scheme of things is being allowed in the game at all. Accept that before you could do for yourself, someone did everything for you so you could live and thrive. Accept that despite your failings, your smallness, your flaws, you are still valued and loved by someone. Someone placed so much value on you that they sacrificed a tremendous part of themselves for you. You did nothing to earn it, and you cannot repay that debt, it is a gift. You were not entitled to that. Every kindness granted to you is undeserved, but despite your smallness, it is still given. It cannot be “won.” Imagine a world that defined that as a “win.” Kindness and mercy given with nothing in tangible reward to show for it. We must teach our children to release all sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. Americans need to humble themselves.
Rehab for Our Culture
While we need to preserve our structure of punishing the guilty, we must embrace accepting that “punishing” the “guilty” is not always the answer. If we can grow in consciousness as a society by granting mercy and forgiveness, maybe we can grant this for ourselves. The stigma attached to addressing depression, mental illness, and psychological stress keeps millions of Americans from not only seeking help on an individual level, but it prevents us from demanding a more bountiful and efficient system for doing so. On a more mundane level, millions of Americans in desperate need of vacation time, something granted by law, never take it. We don’t even give ourselves permission to rest.
In a society that demands freedom for all, we by far incarcerate the most. We place often unattainable standards on ourselves and our fellow Americans. The punitive way in which we approach vulnerability and failure has not resulted in advances for any one accept those in the booming business of the privatized, for-profit prison industry. The vast majority of us are not Ted Bundy or Mother Theresa. Most of us live somewhere in between. We need to make allowances for that space, and vulnerability. The current American penal system has run amok and we have a responsibility to reign it in, but first we must start with acknowledging our individual vulnerabilities, and grant ourselves some measure of mercy in our quest and failures in pursuit of our American dreams.