Passing Judgment on Our Society

There’s a popular maxim — often attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, though I’ve not been able to find any substantiation that he ever wrote it — that says one can measure the degree of civilization in a society by how it treats its prisoners. By that standard, the United States has long been at the bottom end of the civilization scale.

Nothing has driven this home more definitively than the brutal murder of John J. Geoghan. Now before anyone starts blasting away, let me be clear: I in no way condone Geoghan’s actions, nor do I attempt to raise any issue with his incarceration. (It’s sad that I feel I have to make that disclaimer, but while I’m confident in the relative intelligence of my regular readers, I do have to allow for the unknown of the occasional site browser.) There are many who would argue that Geoghan deserved death; I may take issue with the morality (or larger practicality) of actually putting him to death, but I will not herein attempt to argue with his potentially deserving a more severe punishment. But the sad truth is that this murder is not at all what society has mandated as the appropriate punishment for his crimes. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for society at large to turn a blind eye to this brutal act, saying, in effect, that Geoghan deserves neither our sympathy nor our justice.

But if ever an issue could be characterized as the proverbial “slippery slope,” this is it. Exactly which prisoners are deserving of our sympathy and support, and which are not? To play devil’s advocate for a moment, Geoghan didn’t kill anybody; should his fate be worse than that which we usually reserve for the most brutal of murderers? How about the first-time offender incarcerated for marijuana possession? Given the vast scale of potential crimes currently warranting incarceration — from the truly victimless to the inarguably abhorrent — at what point does our moral obligation to provide basic civil protections disappear?

The sad truth, of course, is that the politicians — as a rule — couldn’t care less: As the Post’s Richard Cohen points out, prisoners can’t vote.

And herein, in my opinion at least, lies at least part of the problem. In theory, the argument is understandable: By committing their crimes, prisoners have lost their basic Constitutional right to vote. As the dregs of society, why should we give them voice in our governance? Unfortunately, the reality is that we live in a society that has imprisoned the largest percentage of our population of any industrialized country in the world: In actual numbers, we’re talking about, at last count, 2.1 million people. That’s twice the entire population of Rhode Island. And that’s just those currently incarcerated; keep in mind that — in most cases — voting rights are lost not only during the prison term itself (a moderately defensible proposition), but also in perpetuity, long after the so-called “debt to society” has supposedly been paid in full. As a nation, we tend to be fond of shouting, “We’re number one!” But somehow I doubt this one’s worth bragging about, particularly when a substantial portion of those prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

Actually, that last illustrates my point perfectly. What our government has done — whether by design or by fortuitous accident — is to effectively silence substantial opposition to its draconian drug policy. The same can be extrapolated to prison conditions in general. When we silence the expression of dissent — or, more accurately, remove any potency from that expression — we remove the most valuable means for effecting necessary change. The victims have no voice.

Of course, all is not without hope. With the unaninous passage — in both houses — of S.1435, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (also available in pdf format), Congress has taken a serious step toward rectifying the horrific conditions endemic to our prison system. I think the very fact that such a bill is needed, that the reality of prison rape is so widespread, such common knowledge that even the politicians can no longer ignore it, is the saddest statement of all on our society’s lack of “civilization.” The bill’s certainly not a solution in and of itself — the very fact that it passed unanimously should confirm that its enforcement capability is effectively nonexistent (or else somebody would have objected). And it remains to be seen whether little George will sign the bill. But even if it serves only as a mechanism to gather reliable statistics on the problem, it is a positive, and necessary, first step. Let’s hope somebody can take the second.


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