I wrote the following for a blog I maintained in the fall of 2007, while doing an “inner city immersion” semester in Los Angeles:
Honesty compels me to admit that I’ve struggled with what I ought to write here. LA is great, but this experience has not been easy, by any means, as I have literally come face to face with a variety of urban problems but feel that I have yet to come across any viable, permanent solutions.
The hardest thing for me so far was probably our visit to the Los Angeles Men’s County Jail.
Someone once told me that jails are kind of cushy these days, what with the TVs, and all, and that people on the streets often commit crimes solely to get into jail. I’m not sure what his source was, but after visiting that particular jail, I have to say that the only way I could ever be induced to want to go there is if the other option was literally hell.
I spent the hour and a half walking tour choking back tears. It was frighteningly easy to see my father or my brothers dressed in blue jumpsuits, staring at the floor as they shuffled down the hall, having to endure the curious stares of the middle class scholars who treat these circumstances as a novelty at which to shake their heads and make little “tut tut” noises. I felt as though I was at a zoo, as though there ought to be vending machines offering peanuts or crack cocaine in little baggies for visitors to throw at the particularly active inmates.
The inmates are stripped of space, privacy, humanity, spending at least 162 hours a week caged between dreary gray walls and glaring florescent lighting. They are at constant risk of disease (22 unidentifiable diseases have been found between the jail walls in addition to “every disease known to man.” Flesh-eating disease was making the rounds when we toured, and we were warned not to touch anything); attack by other inmates is a constant threat. While we were there, a new group of inmates were brought in, and the sight of one of those men is seared in my memory–his fear and defeat were palpable as he cowered against the wall, clutching his outdoor clothes; I couldn’t hold back tears when we made eye contact. I have no idea what he’d done, but he seemed. . .sweet, somehow, and the thought of what was likely to happen to him in prison saddened me.
Though I hurt deeply for the men I saw that day, I also hurt for those they’ve injured. I’ve known far too many victims to take incarceration-worthy crime lightly, and I want in no way to downplay the perversion and injustice of the crimes that had landed many of those men in jail.
Yet as I looked at those faces, even of the sick men who made foul advances as we walked by, my heart couldn’t help but cry out for their redemption. Yes, they have committed terrible atrocities–but does their humanity crack and slip away under the weight of their crimes? Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that most people don’t wake up one morning, snap, and rape. Many of the people who commit the most heinous of crimes have come from horrible situations, and looking at their contexts, while certainly not excusing their actions, certainly awakens a sense of empathy within me for these people who have had far less of a chance at life than I. How do we draw that line–which crimes are those so terrible that those who commit them have given up their rights to live as a human being ever again?
Please don’t misunderstand my intent here–I am ferociously protective of victims.
But I wonder if there is another way we could go about achieving justice for victims. At this moment, our societal idea of justice is built largely around the idea of punishment of crimes, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but does locking the offender away from everything good for years really ‘resolve’ a crime? Does the victim get a chance to heal when she has to know that her offender may be back on the street, and possibly even more hardened, in a matter of years? Can we expect a child molester, a murderer, and an embezzler to mingle for years in these conditions and come out ready to mingle in society?
I wonder if there is another way, a way that makes the offenders come to terms with the pain they’ve caused, a way that forces them to look in the eyes of their victims and take personal responsibility for the pain they’ve caused and for efforts to help repair what damage they can? A way that allows the victims a true chance to heal, rather than fearing the day the incarcerated are freed?
I honestly don’t have answers; the tension between wanting justice, healing, even revenge, for the victim and desiring to offer the chance at redemption to the abuser is taut with potential issues, and quite frankly, there won’t ever be “winners” in this situation; but I wonder if we can set up the system in a way to minimize unnecessary pain and maximize possible gains.