Letter: Humanize the Prison System
To the Editor:
I commend the Valley News for its recent publication of a three-part investigative series on prison gangs in New Hampshire by Concord Monitor reporters Jeremy Blackman and Annmarie Timmins. The flaws and challenges in our out sized, outrageously expensive prison system don’t receive nearly enough attention, and Blackman and Timmins provide a convincing account of the danger that New Hampshire’s prisons might become a finishing school for organized crime.
In Ohio, the state from which I recently migrated, we set out to solve the problem of prison gangs in 1998 by building a “supermax,” the Ohio State Penitentiary. Like many states, we were copying the practice of “permanent lockdown” that became popular after a federal prison in Marion, Ill., began to use total isolation in 1983 as a way of reducing gang violence. Unfortunately, we found what Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville said in The Penitentiary System in the United States way back in 1833 was true: “(A)bsolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.” Solitude freely chosen can restore a person’s sense of well being, but extended, enforced isolation is a form of torture that destroys people.
Solitary confinement, in short, isn’t a quick fix for the problems created by gangs in prisons. Perhaps we could use another investigative series about efforts to humanize and strengthen our criminal justice system, efforts to find alternatives to our unsuccessful “war on drugs.” I’m thinking of nearby programs in New Hampshire and Vermont such as Telling My Story (http://www.tellingmystory.org/about/), which works to help people behind walls “reclaim their own voices and strengths,” and Dismas of Vermont (http://www.dismasofvermont.org/), which believes in “reconciling prisoners with society and society with prisoners.”