Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Why I Study Punishment

I came across this article written by Chrysanthi Leon from the University of Delaware
“It would be nice if we could get more access to therapy after the guards rape us.”

This is not the answer I expected to hear. Part of a “judicial envoy” touring a correctional facility for women, I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the women in the special section for mentally ill inmates. I asked them what else they needed to succeed. The first woman I spoke to wanted to know if I was a judge. Although disappointed to hear I am a professor, she did express the wish that I try to get my students to see her as a neighbor and as someone’s mother, not just as a monster. She described herself as a single mother who got carried away in trying to keep up appearances, and began to write bad checks to pay for the latest video games for her sons. She said she didn’t need anything to succeed, she had learned her lesson and would do fine once released.

It was the second woman who shocked me, as much with her matter-of-fact delivery as with the content. In her thirties and the mother of two teenage boys, she appeared thin and anxious, but offered a ready smile. When I asked if there was anything she needed, she immediately asked for more help for women sexually assaulted by guards. She said that when she was raped, all they did was move her to this ward. “When he was zipping up, he told me if I said anything he’d have me put in solitary. That’s my biggest fear. But I’m proud of myself for speaking up; I’ve found that everything is changing for me now that I’ve spoken.” In the time remaining before they called us away, we chatted about going to college and being mothers.

I quickly put aside her comments after leaving the facility, which was actually a lovely campus that could as easily have been a prep school as a prison. I told myself that since I was touring the ward for the mentally ill, it was likely that her comments were the product of her delusions. But the story she told lingered in my mind.

Later that same week, a civil rights activist came to speak to my introduction to criminal justice class. She spoke of the letters from inmates she receives, and told some gruesome stories to illustrate the limits of our current laws. In particular, she emphasized how difficult it is to address harms caused to people in prison. The main mechanism for recognizing prison problems is through lawsuits filed under the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But since the passage of a law in the 1990s called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, few harms meet the threshold. For example, courts have determined that being raped by a guard is not a violation of a person’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. She proceeded to tell the story of the woman I had spoken with. Afterwards, I checked, and, indeed, the young mother I spoke with is part of a lawsuit being filed against the prison for a pattern of allowing sexual assaults.

This is why I study punishment. This is why I teach in a department of sociology and criminal justice. This is why I am on the board of the Sexual Abuse Treatment Alliance. Within ten miles of my home, women are being terrorized and tortured in my name. When we delegate the power to punish to our state authorities, the actions they take are on behalf of all of us and are paid for with out tax dollars. It’s still not clear to me what I can do, aside from telling the story. In this cultural moment, when we think of sex crime, we think of the angelic child victims of sexual homicide that dominate the news. We are much less apt to think of adult victims, let alone women who cannot be valorized as blameless and holy martyrs to the beastly desires of bad men. Neither do we care much about people behind bars; instead we choose to view them as deserving of whatever they get. We may have more sympathy for female offenders than for male; this may create an opening for hearing this story. But beyond just hearing this story and others, we must consider what we can do to recognize the humanity of people who have been convicted of criminal offenses. How can we better support the work of the many good people in the justice system and in community and social services who care for them and support them as they re-enter society? How can we move beyond our limited understanding of what sexual violence is and who it affects?

Addressing these issues are practical as well as moral imperatives. As we enter a new decade, I resolve to draw as many others into reasoned debate and passionate inquiry on these subjects as possible, with the hope that some will create the changes we desperately need.

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