“However the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren.”
In April of this year, my wife Sita and I led dharma workshops in eleven maximum-security prisons in and around Huntsville, Texas. As the prison van drove us from unit to unit, our jaws dropped at what we saw: thousands of square miles-probably an area as big as Rhode Island-with nothing in sight but razor wire, guard towers and windowless prison buildings. The distances between some of the units took a half-hour or forty-five minute drive without ever leaving state prison land. It was eerie to contemplate how we had come to the point where a state devotes such an enormous area to lock up its own citizens.
And Texas is not alone. Prisons are now the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. economy. In 1994, Governor Lowry of Washington quipped that at the current rate of increased incarceration and prison construction, “Everyone in the state of Washington will either be in or working in a prison by the year 2056.” During the twenty-five years that I have been working in prisons, the national budget for building and operating prisons has gone from $500 million to $31 billion per year. The number of institutions has quadrupled. The inmate population has risen from 187,000 to 1.4 million. One out of every fifty children in the United States now has a parent in prison. More young black males are now in prison than in college. Our own mailing list has grown from a few dozen dharma seekers to over 30,000.
These facts and figures-and the horrific human suffering they represent-are overwhelming. And that’s actually part of the problem: our prison situation is so outrageous, it is easier to avoid thinking about it than to struggle toward a solution. But there is no way to be uninvolved. If you pay taxes, you are involved. If you have locks on your doors, you are involved. If you vote for politicans who boast of their hatred toward criminals and their intention to be crueler to them if elected, you are involved.
And if you have children, you are deeply, dangerously involved. Whom do you think all those new prisons are going to hold?
Believe me, however the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. A whole “prison-industrial complex” has arisen to replace the military-industrial complex of the cold war. An enormous economy is at stake, involving thousands of jobs. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren.
Is there really nothing better we can do about this? Of course there is. First, we can strengthen our personal practice so that compassion and clear-thinking don’t fly out the window when we are confronted by crime. If we are victims of a crime, we can insist on meeting the perpetrator, insist on keeping it a human interaction rather than one which is sanitized and depersonalized by the state. We can press for a restorative approach in the trial and sentencing æ one which emphasizes responsibility, restitution and healing rather than retribution.
We can take seriously the ageless teachings which remind us to see everyone as our mother, everyone as having buddhanature. Even with the most despicable of criminals, we can strive to remember that our happiness and liberation are interdependent with theirs; that they are as much the beneficiaries of all the bodhisattvas’ vows as we are.
If we belong to any church or sangha, we can make sure that its membership includes at least the percentage of ex-cons, recovering addicts, etc., that exists in the general population. We can make sure our congregation or sangha is available to prisoners in our locale, and get to know them while they’re locked up, so we can responsibly welcome them into our community when they are released. As John Prine put it in a song, “Everybody wants to feel wanted.”
We can educate ourselves so that we can help dispel the popular media myths about crime and criminals. For example, do you assume we need all those new prisons across the continent because there are so many violent and dangerous criminals? The truth is, more than 70% of prisoners are doing time for nonviolent offenses. Without building a single new prison, we have plenty of room for truly dangerous offenders. But by throwing in seventy nonviolent offenders-most of them scared to death, just wanting to get out alive-with thirty violent ones, what percentage do you suppose will be nonviolent by the time they are released? I know many young men and women who have been encouraged by prison mentors to attack and/or kill a fellow prisoner the first week after they arrive, so that they can earn a reputation that will keep them reasonably safe from predation.
In the current climate, your darling little baby could go through a rebellious or dysfunctional period during adolescence and suddenly be faced with such dilemmas. One young friend of mine is doing time for fraudulently using his dad’s credit card. The state of Michigan has kept him nearly five years now for that heinous crime, and a few months ago he was brutally raped by a prison guard who had already been reported for similar conduct with two other young inmates. The guard has finally been fired but still walks the streets free as a bird, while the young men, all nonviolent offenders, remain locked up.
Another myth is that corrections professionals endorse our lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key national attitude. The truth: U.S. Senator Paul Simon surveyed prison wardens across the nation and found that 85% of them advocate more prevention programs and increased use of alternatives to prison. They believe the majority of inmates would do better in programs that didn’t rip them away from their families and communities. Even without such a survey, common sense would say the same thing. We must return to that common sense and not be talked out of it by political fear-mongering.
It’s a wonderful challenge to apply dharma teachings to such a serious social problem. And it’s a great thrill and deep inspiration to get to know people who are striving for wisdom and compassion even in such circumstances. The old stories are true; the teachings work. We don’t have to avert our eyes from this mess. We can help to transform it-and ourselves-instead.