Aversion Therapy

clockwork orange
from author John Waters “Kant Socratic Ideas” Powerpoint presentation. 

Many people in prison decide to go straight, not because of any compelling argument to do right or any education received, but simply because they can’t stand the thought of having to live in the abysmal conditions of life in prison or with the others they were forced to live with while in prison.  It’s aversion therapy not cognitive behavioral therapy, reminiscent of the novel “Clockwork Orange” written by Anthony Burgess and made into a motion picure by Stanley Kubrick in 1971.

Barbaric, inhumane, and oppressive not simply austere, regimented and controlled living conditions convince many that committing crimes that lead to prison is not for them.  Unfortunately, many do come back because they don’t have the skills, knowledge, and support necessary to stay out.  Once away from the prison environment the impression left by it fades away and it becomes only a bad dream instead of a living nightmare.  The old habits and thought patterns re-emerge and soon it is back to business as usual and it is only by repeated trips back to prison that the lesson is slowly and painfully driven home.

The problem for some is that prison is an improvement on how they were living, homeless and hungry, they were destitute and desperate, either by choice or chance. They can put up with and even thrive in prison, because it is better than where they came from and are in no hurry to return to.  Access to healthcare is a bonus.  A chance to go to school or work in order to earn a few dollars is a luxury not often experienced in their lives.  Often clean and sober for the first time in years they are actually content, if not happy to vacation in jail or prison.

It is ironic that a country that prides itself on freedom, justice, and opportunity; one of the riches, most educated and well-fed countries on the planet resorts to a system where incarceration, arbitrariness and restriction practiced based on impoverishment, ignorance and hunger to coercer, coopt and control individuals by oppressive, denigrating, and manipulative means.  The hallmarks of an Orwellian society.

Many people in the general public believe that convicted criminals get what they have coming to them.  No one is asking to turn prison into a country club with an executive par 3 golf course and an Olympic sized pool.  But ask yourself, if it was your child being sent to prison, would you not rather have it be a productive time of rehabilitation rather than just a place for retribution?  Or citing the old adage “There but for the grace of God go I” recognize that there is no difference between you and those in prison except for the conviction. The vast majority of people have over-indulged in sex, drugs, or drinking at some point in their life, especially when they were young and not risk averse. You simply did not get caught.  Dr. Phil likes to quote a factoid that the average American commits 3 felonies a day due to the number and complexity of our laws.

Not everyone who goes to prison has lived a criminal lifestyle. Many have been law abiding citizens for the majority of their lives, who in a moment of indiscretion committed a criminal act. In our litigious society there is no distinction been the two. Should not the Golden Rule apply to prison?  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

As a nation we look on the other countries with poor human rights records, yet fail to deal with our own hidden, shameful track record that has resulted in higher incarceration rates than any other country, including Russia and China.  Would it not be better to address the cause of crime rather than the repercussions?  In the long term the present strategy is not financially sustainable.  It goes against the recommendations of the experts who study criminal justice and fails to make our society safer.

So why do some people stubbornly cling to the “tough on crime” position and allow our families, schools, and city infrastructure to fail?  Could it be that their own personal hurts and inability to heal from them has brought them to a place where they no longer have grace and mercy towards anyone that they don’t see as a victim?  They can no longer separate the sin from the sinner, the individual from the crime.  Seeking retribution in the failed belief that hurting others that have hurt them will even the score.  Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy.

It is no coincidence that the least violent societies have the fewest while the most violent societies in which law and order still prevail have many.  A society that claims to be the land of the free incarcerates more people than the most totalitarian dictatorship is an anomaly.  Something is not right, there is a breakdown in some fundamental tenant of the society and those who represent it in government service.  Today there are special interest seeking the ear of those in power.  Government that was once of the people, by the people, and for the people is instead of and for these special interests with their narrow and selfish agendas, including those who make profits from mass incarceration: for profit prison corporations, correction officers unions, subcontractors and vendors; and those that benefit from them like judges, prosecutors, sheriffs and legislators seeking election or re-election.  Conflicts of interest that are ignored or even given tacit approval by the general public and the media.

Profit motive is not how prison should be run.  The state has a compelling interest to care for those entrusted into its care.  Inmates as wards of the state do have some civil and many human rights. The term “cruel and unusual punishment” has been enshrined in the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, yet the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on numerous occasions regarding common practices which violate this standard including: denial of healthcare, indefinite solitary confinement, minimum standards for nutrition, housing, treatment by staff, juvenile lifer laws, and certain forms of execution.  When the government will not bear the burden for ensuring that the basic needs of inmates are met, how can you possibly think that a ‘for profit’ corporation can do it in a cost-effective manor with a profit margin that will satisfy the shareholders?

Overcrowding, inadequate staff supervision, aging facilities, spending less than $1 per day to feed prisoners; denial of life saving healthcare services, limited ineffective educational/vocational training programs; inadequate mental health services, psychological counseling and programs; systemic violence and abuse. Conditions so difficult that prisoners incarcerated for more than 5 years qualify for SSD due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). How can anyone think that another human being deserves to be treated like this?  95% of the people incarcerated will one day be released back into society.  Don’t they deserve better?

It is unconscionable to think that the general public would condone the harsh, inhumane treatment of prisoners.  More likely apathy or ignorance regarding the state of prison conditions is the norm.  However, with over 1% of the U.S. population currently behind bars or on parole or probation chances are almost everyone knows somebody who was or is currently serving time in jail/prison. Most people who have spent time in prison don’t like to talk about it and are trying to put it behind them.  Or the stories they tell are so outside of peoples experience that they have a hard time believing.  But I am here to tell you they are true and probably were sanitized so as not to shock you.

If you’ve never heard about the conditions in prison you’re not alone.  Until I came to prison I had no idea either.  It was my own shock and dismay over what I saw and experienced that led me to write this book.  When I tried to tell my family about what I was going through and how badly the people’s taxes were being wasted on prisons, it was then that I realized how universal the problem was, that people didn’t have a clue what was going on behind the walls and razor wire and that the MDOC wanted it that way.  There is a conspiracy of silence.  From time to time articles will appear in the newspaper detailing some incident that has occurred, the appointment of a new director and their vision for the future of corrections, or lawsuit brought against the department, but rarely if ever frontpage news.

The State of Michigan in their budgets set aside money to pay for legal settlements against the various state agencies.  The largest percentage of that fund on an annual basis goes to pay millions of dollars in judgments and settlements against the MDOC for the mistreatment of inmates.  The most infamous being the over half billion-dollar class action judgment for sexual abuse at the women’s prison in the 1990’s.

The issues are real, troubling, and systemic.  Actual practices by staff do not align with public policy set by the legislature or nationally recognized standards established through the American Corrections Association (ACA).  The only recourse left for inmates whose grievances have fallen on deaf ears is to riot, which happens from time to time, but generally fails to get the desired changes and only blows off steam.  And the inmates will be blamed for the incident rather than acknowledge the underlying cause.

It is easier to blame a few malcontents in the population than to address the situation in an honest, objective, and professional way.  Damage has been done, pride wounded, and issues raised that those in charge would rather not have to answer.  And in the end, nothing really changes. Maintaining the status quo, job security, and control of the second largest state budget after public is the objective not reform of the system or those trapped in it.

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