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Sunday, March 11, 2012

A big, scarlet letter A for A--holes

The national obsession with punishment has reached the  point where one writer sees the rate at which we put people in jail in America  no longer as a solution for crime, but as the symptom of an epidemic in mental health raging through the populace.  Incarceration is one of the things for which  South Dakota leads the nation.  It has twice as many people in jail as its neighbor North Dakota.  The case is made in a new book A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America by Ernest Drucker.  By 2010, the U.S. had 1.6 million adults in prison.  

Drucker points out that prison doesn't solve problems with crime, but rather intensifies them.  Half the people who get out of prison end up back in within three years.  That's because convicts are branded and are deprived of the ability to get along in society. Drucker writes,  "Denying ex-cons access to the jobs, school or housing they need, is a recipe for driving them back to prison."

 I have long been skeptical that prisons serve a constructive purpose, for the most part.  Fifty years ago, I worked on a series of stories the newspaper I was at did on convicted criminals.  My main interview was with a very old prisoner who joined a religious order and became the assistant to a Catholic chaplain.  During the interview, I asked him what people in prison were the most dangerous and posed the biggest threats to public safety.  He said the wrongfully convicted..  For them, the idea of justice had totally failed and developed a desired to get revenge on a society that wrongfully sent them to jail.  Furthermore, he said prisons do not encourage the convicted to change their lives in constructive ways, but provide them thorough schooling in crime.  It provides them with motives for being anti-social.  His comments were predictive when the same prison he was at in Illinois released 13 men from death row when DNA evidence proved they were wrongfully convicted.  

Prisons, however, are the most obvious symptom of a society that has become obsessed with punishment and ostracizing people from society for absurd reasons.  Our schools, which are under attack for academic reasons, are places where absurd obsessions with punishing kids have become prevalent.

In Sioux Falls, a 15-year-old middle school student was suspend under the zero tolerance for drugs policy  because he gave a classmate a dietary supplement capsule of fish oil.  His parents protested because the kid is a promising athlete and the suspension for drugs on his record would spoil his chances of qualifying for an athletic scholarship to college.  The first question that instance raises is about the competence of the people who handled the situation.  The punishment was reduced, but a school spokesman said, "Even if it is an over-the-counter drug, it may be a threat to another student. We certainly have our eyes out and want to protect every student while they are in the school building. Our policies are designed to do that."   Of course, the question is how that protects the future of the student who gets punished on a drug count for trafficking in fish oil.  

However, the idiotic paranoia that drives schools into absurdity was typified in a comment on the story in the Aberdeen American News:  "The school did the right thing. Using the Athletic Scholarship argument gets the case the publicity needed to send a message to the kids that it really is ZERO TOLERANCE.  Don't ever think a kid won't try to tamper with a harmless vitamin capsule. They have come up with other even more sneaky schemes."  

This is the thinking that is shaping school policies.  These schools are not places anyone with a three-digit IQ would want to send their kids.  

Another example occurred in North Carolina where a nine-year-old boy was suspended for sexual harassment for calling a teacher cute--but not to her face.  The Huffington Post explains it this way:  "After a substitute teacher overheard 9-year-old Emanyea tell another student a teacher was 'cute,' school officials put him on two-day suspension for sexual harassment."  He is also alleged to have said the teacher was "fine" in a suggestive way.  

Justice was eventually served when the school district investigated the situation and determined that no sexual harassment was involved.  Then the school district
gave the principal Jerry Bostic one hour to decide whether to quit or be fired. He retired.

But that raised another question of excessive punishments:  Bostic said, ""One mistake in 44 years, and I'm not given the benefit of the doubt. I really don't believe I was treated fairly."  

When we are among the world leaders in the rate of incarceration and students are shone the levels of intelligence demonstrated above by school authorities, Drucker's diagnosis of an epidemic becomes enlightening.  There is a movement in society much more concerned with oppressing and tearing down than in the possibilities for freedom and building up.  It is reflected in the condemnatory propaganda that dominates our election campaigns.  It is more evidence of the massive intellectual failure that is reshaping America. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States