Thursday, 5 April 2012

Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that you can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. As we celebrate Easter and Holy Week with the observation of the Passion of Christ this is an interesting issue on which to reflect. The video above was filmed at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines where the prisoners practice dancing for four hours a day in a program instituted by the prison governor in response to a prior series of riots in the old jail, a former Spanish fortress, caused by overcrowding, corrupt jail guards, inmate gangs and a lack of structured programs. The prison's improvements in health, reduced violence and declining recidivism from new larger facilities in another location and a meaningful use of inmates energy as well as the end of the gangs and the termination of  corrupt officials put it on the shortlist for the 2007 Gawad Galing Pook, a Philippine award for excellence in local governance. If you give people respect and an opportunity to demonstrate success in achievable goals within the constraints of the institution, then they can transcend the limitations of their situation. This is a reflection on the societal strengths and willingness to innovate of what westerners demean as a developing country.

A similar event occurred in the Argentine town of Olmos, not far from Buenos Aires, where the large local prison housing over 3000 inmates had parallel problems to the Philippine facility to the point where the incarcerated crime lords and drug dealers actually had operational daily control of the prison and its inmates. A pastor at the local town, Miguel Zucarelli, applied for a job at the prison and was accepted although not without dismissal from the facility officials of his ambitions to transform the attitudes of the prison population. A choir was formed with the support of the prison psychologist and through the communal discipline required by the music a transformation took place in part of the prison community. The goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment in the eyes of the correctional hierarchy in these third world (?) countries and this seems to be lost in the advanced states’ Calvinistic view of inmate treatment as punishment for sin or revenue in the for profit sector of correctional institutions. And this has extended to such petty vicious humilities as ending the choice of the last meal for contemned death row prisoners in Texas last year. Somehow they don`t deserve even the smallest courtesy at the end of their lives including a tradition of the last meal which extends back to Greek and Roman times.

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The basic issue is respect for the basic humanity of all people. The prisons in the preceding paragraphs consider rehabilitation rather than punitive measures more important. Although America calls itself a Christian nation, it seems to have forgotten the basic tenets of the faith. On Tuesday, the Holy Week day when the church commemorates the Parable of the Ten Virgins which has the eschatological theme of being prepared for judgment day, students from Santa Monica College showed up at a Board of Trustees meeting to protest a proposed quadrupling of course fees in response to California state cuts to educational funds. The response of the college officials was to unleash the campus police who proceeded to pepper spray dozens of students as well as bystanders including a four year old child who can be seen in the photo here being treated for pepper spray. For those of you who think that pepper spray is pretty innocuous check the infographic below.


Later a college administrator stated that it was done for the safety of the participants although I can’t see how anyone would be threatened by a four year old. Santa Monica College president Dr. Chui L. Tsang later made a statement in which he said, ”Although a number of participants at the meeting engaged in unlawful conduct, Santa Monica College police personnel exercised restraint and made no arrests.” This gentleman must be living on another planet when he considers pepper spraying a child is exercising restraint. I wouldn’t consider him prepared for judgment day.

Conservative blogs have been giving the story either a “shit happens” or “rogue police individual” spin. The same take as in the University of California, Davis campus, John Pike pepper spraying incident which hit the national news last November. None of the right wing blogs including the supposedly libertarian ones who are so concerned about individual liberties discuss the erosion of those liberties such as the loss of 4th to 8th amendments in the NDAA , the evisceration of the citizenship section,14th amendment in the enemy expatriation act or the Georgian SB 469 bill that ends the first amendment rights, freedom of speech and right of peaceful assembly and reformulates it as a felony crime with up to one year detention in jail and a thousand dollar a day fine - the criminalization of formerly accepted rights to protest. There is also the issue of the change in enforcement mentality from defenders of public order to an occupying force in a hostile community where all means are justified in the name of the existing regime and there are no innocents. Some of this comes from a federal bill passed years ago which funds and encourages the repatriation of former soldiers by transitioning them into law enforcement jobs. Also the militarization of police by the accumulation of surplus military equipment including machine guns and armoured personnel carriers as well as urban combat training using unrealistic scenarios involving civilian uprisings has occurred. This has lead to a general repressive outlook by the authorities including the educational establishment and has desensitized them to use of force in situation where some students act in a traditional confrontational manner and the officials forget the true role of the humanities to foster dissent within appropriate conditions. In the new format, students are not meant to be mentored into critically thinking adults but are merely conduits of financial income from private sources and thus expendable intermediaries who have no value except in their role as monetary units. Dr. Chui L. Tsang who has a $206,800 compensation package that includes $175,000 in salary, a $650 per month car allowance and $24,000 a year for housing, as well as $5,000 for moving expenses considers students’ concerns about a massive increase in tuition costs and their subsequent actions in this case to be “unlawful”. When you’re in the elite, empathy is a luxury.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post. I was unaware of the toxic power of pepper spray or the militarisation of the US police. It's shocking and worrying to think the ultimate logical conclusion is a police state 'to keep everyone safe...'.