Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Prisongate expanded

Last week I wrote about children in the care of the state in Alaska. Children grow up and may find themselves in the care of the state later in life. One example of this is prison.

Joe Schmidt was appointed by Sarah Palin to head the Department of Corrections and continues to fill the position under Parnell. Schmidt was third in line for the position of governor and would have become lieutenant governor automatically when Sarah Palin quit her job. He declined the offer and Lieutenant General Craig Campbell assumed that role instead.

The Alaska Correctional Officers Association gave the state corrections commissioner Joe Schmidt a “no confidence” censure vote on Tue, April 22, 2008. ACOA union members voted 514 to 19 against Schmidt.

Here's a link to a recent video about the state of the prisons in Alaska, so you can acquaint yourself with Joe Schmidt and some of the problems his department faces.

Alaska Prison Population Profile

Schmidt's department has "corrections" in its heading. What are they trying to correct? Primarily, prisons exist to isolate individuals from the rest of society when their behaviour is deemed inappropriate. Secondarily, prisons may pusnish and/or rehabilitate such individuals. Are prisons working as far as the "correcting" goes?

The United States as a whole leads the world in the number of its citizens living in incarceration.

Although the figures for Alaska lag behind the rest of the US, when we consider the size of the population of Alaska, these statistics become disturbing.

The cost of incarceration per inmate in Alaska range from approximately 44 to 49 thousand dollars per year (depending on the source) as opposed to an approximate average of 28 thousand dollars per inmate per year in the US.

The number of prisoners with mental health problems both in the US and in Alaska is also disturbing and add to the running costs of the prisons. One could argue that this is money well spent if it "cures" people and they may returned to society safely.

I found a case that appears to conflict with this argument:

Etta Bavilla was first subjected to forced psychiatric drugging in 1997 when she was 17. She killed her one year old son in July of 1998, while psychotic. It seems probable that if she hadn't been forced to take psychiatric drugs her son would still be alive. She entered a plea agreement for a 60 year sentence with 20 years suspended with the court to decide whether she was guilty but mentally Ill. The court did find her guilty but mentally ill and she was sentenced on August 14, 2000, to 60 years in prison with 20 years suspended.

This looks like a case from the previous post spilling into this one. Will 40 or 60 years in prison "correct" Etta's problems? The way her mental health issues were managed before Etta found herself in prison for life not only did not correct any problems she had, but very likely contributed to her subsequent incarceration. The treatment Etta was receiving in 2007 didn't seem adequate for correcting anything in the long term.

Etta's story is not unique. It repeats itself in men's prisons and some stories are horrific.

The powers-that-be in Alaska appear to be on top of things, working towards reducing the prison population through prevention programs and the reassigning of prisoners with mental health issues to other departments. It looks very good on paper, but previous research into the various state departments and other bodies involved in this project, including the Law Courts, makes me a bit skeptical, to say the least.

Regardless of the situation in Alaska, the chart showing the US as the top incarcerator in he world led me to a few questions.

Sarah Palin quoted Victor Hugo in her 2008 State of the State address: "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."

The size of the prison population in the US (a very large, modern democracy) reflects badly on the US education system, if Victor Hugo's quote is anything to go by. Is it because different states have different ways of addressing the same issues and the disparity in approach to education contributes to the appalling statistics?

The prospect of going to prison should act as a deterrent, so something is not working, as the prison population keeps on growing...

The high percentage of prisoners with mental health issues seems to indicate a defficiency in other departments and this creates a vicious circle. How can an organized, modern society fail so many?

Another factor that may contribute to the present state of affairs is the proliferation of private prison facilities with a focus on profits. The employment of prisoner labour, in conditions very akin to slave labour, has created a whole economy where output is guaranteed and the costs of maintaining such a workforce are absorbed by state governments that have to pay to house the inmates.

It may be argued that providing opportunities for work and for learning new skills assist prisoners in readjusting to life outside bars when they are released. A great number of prisoners serve sentences disproportionate to the seriousness of their crimes, so by the time they're released, they're hopelessly institutionalized or have little time left to contribute to society.

Margaret Thatcher famously said the there is no such thing as society. I beg to differ. In my opinion, government exists to see that in society we interact in accordance to certain principles and values. Government provides services that can't be left to individuals. Government organizes, much in the same way a community organizer does, only on a larger scale. Without society, there would be no need for government. Unless government existed only for the purpose of defending the borders and attacking other countries to force democracy down their throats. Oh, and according to Sarah Palin, to stay out of people's lives, in particular the lives of the people running the big corporations. In the world where Sarah Palin's is president, all that is needed is a vast army, huge prisons, a womb police to make sure every woman chooses life and society would look after itself, each person surviving according to their own work ethic in the middle of a chaotic free-for-all. No taxes and no services. The big corporations would get richer and if the little people really need help, they could turn to Sarah's good mate's Samaritan Purse and all would be fine.

If Alaska is, as Sarah Palin told Katie Couric, "a microcosm of America," the messy prison system, where mental health issues are mixed with crime, the problems of alcoholism, sexual and domestic violence, substance abuse and other factors may be (conservatively) extrapolated to the rest of the country. The percentages in Alaska for all these are much higher than elsewhere in the US. But in Alaska as in the rest of the country, services appear to be largely uncoordinated.

There are plans for prison reform in Alaska and the US and one of its proponents is none other than Newt Gingrich! Some of the proponents focus on costs, others on the welfare of the prisoners. If they come together in a fruitful meeting of minds, look at the prison system as part of a whole and strive to implement programs to prevent crime rather than simply "correct" the behaviour of prisoners, if they arrive at some answers on how to offer real opportunities for prisoners to readjust to life in their communities while retaining their dignity, maybe there is some hope not only for society, but for a civilized society.

If there is to be a civilized society in the US (or anywhere), those who lack vision and the will to serve all sectors of society should not pursue an office in goverment. Those who have a heart to serve only the interests of a very narrow section of this civilized society as well as their very own interests have no place in government at all. They should go home and remain silent. Now.

Please read all Prisongate posts on Palingates. (This post will appear at the top when you click on the link. Scroll down for previous posts)

This is a good video
that shows the problems involving private prisons. (h/t to Say No to Palin in Politics)

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