Ray Elliott/Voices: Prisons and our responsibilities

Ray Elliott/Voices: Prisons and our responsibilities

By RAY ELLIOTT

"... And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all." — Kahlil Gibran, "The Prophet"

This excerpt from "The Intruder" is from a book of 26 prose poetry fables by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1923, it is Gibran's best-known work, has been translated in more than 40 different languages and has never been out of print.

While Gibran has more to say about crime and punishment, he gets to the crux of the problem in this poem, which has long been my favorite and where the title of my recently published novel, "With The Silent Knowledge," was taken.

Growing up in this country, I'd always believed that the courts and the prisons were set up in the interest of society and to function for everyone's welfare — for the accused and the convicted, as well for the victimized and the afflicted. With that in mind, I majored in psychology (and English) as an undergraduate and planned to go to grad school to become a clinical psychologist.

But after a year as a "correctional counselor" in a maximum-security penitentiary, I developed a different perspective. Prison riots, murders, rapes and myriad other heinous prison conditions no longer surprise me.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was reported to have used justice with mercy, mercy with wisdom and the three with a balance that fit the circumstances. He was the kind of person I thought all judges should be — and were. It still bothers me all these years later that I fooled myself with this naive belief.

Something in me still can't accept that any American judge would ever send any redeemable man or woman to prison, if the judge realized what he or she was sending them into. Once there, the possibility of anyone ever being redeemed is less likely.

The chance for a crime-free life of redemption is more likely by keeping the felon in the community where the problem originated. That is not to say that I think violent and dangerous people should not be sent to prison. But since the community is part of the problem, as Gibran writes, we need to address the root causes of non-violent criminal behavior—poverty, stress, drug or alcohol addiction and abuse, lack of education, the family structure and more — and keep those offenders out of prison where they are educated with the "Big House" inmates' mindset.

I have known many convicts in prison and many ex-convicts in the general population. And I can't truthfully say that I have any personal knowledge of the prison experience, per se, ever instilling a single positive value in a person, although there are programs that reach a few. I can also truthfully say that I have no knowledge of the prison experience not disintegrating, if not stripping away the positive values a person may have when he or she enters.

However, we continue to send people to prison at an alarming rate. The prison population in Illinois, for example, has risen from about 10,000 to nearly 50,000 from the time I worked in one. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and results in negative societal and economic effects.

Much has been written about prison conditions, so we cannot claim ignorance. Judges and the communities have to be aware of and know what's happening. And if we know, being an educated and caring people, all of us should collapse the prisons for many minor offenders by merely destroying their rotten foundations and work to solve the issues that have prompted the offenses.

But I also know that's wishful thinking on my part. It's much easier to send offenders to prison to punish them and get them out of our sight rather than deal with the problems by providing educational opportunities, job training, therapy and other endeavors to promote learning to live in a society free and honorably.

We express concern over the fact that prisons are overcrowded. We express anger when a prison erupts into full-scale riot and guards are killed or injured — or the released felon kills someone or returns to the same life he or she left. But our society never, not even for a second, thinks the statistic of the recidivists failure is also the statistic of our failure, any more than the beliefs that the full and overcrowded prisons and the riots are the results of our failure. Or if it does, it doesn't change anything.

I don't know how long since it's been since I started doubting the essential justice of man, but it seems like a long time ago. The Russian writer Dostoevsky said, "Man is a pliable animal, a being who gets accustomed to everything."

That's too bad in this case.

Dostoevsky also said something to the effect that you can tell the quality of a society by looking at its prisons. You might want to take a look around you — he spent some time in a Siberian prison.

Ray Elliott is an author and a former high school teacher who lives in rural Urbana. His email address is rayelliott23@att.net.

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