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What Can Repair Our Broken Criminal Justice System?

The criminal justice chapter of my life, now well into its sixth year, stretches out into a long dark tunnel.
The more you learn, the fewer solutions you have to address the social degradation that follows the warehousing of disposable citizens of these United States.

In a recent trip to the Palestine Territory, I opted to walk rather than ride through the Bethlehem checkpoint. I was being met by a high profile Christian Palestinian who had parked his car in an alley so as not to be noticed by Israeli snipers.

Sami Awad had told me once before that his family knows that every morning when he leaves, he may not be coming home.

The chilling effect of the checkpoint set the stage for a long, nerve-wracking walk through a curved tunnel – nerve-wracking due to the inability to see more than 10 yards ahead. That was, of course, the intention of its design.

In a sense, the criminal justice system in America is like that curved tunnel at the Bethlehem checkpoint.

You can’t tell where you are going, how long you will be there, or what is just around the corner. All you know is that it has been designed for the benefit of those for whom the element of surprise affords them psychological advantage.

My experience in the criminal justice system of Maine pales into insignificance, however, compared to those folks who make corrections their career.

I became a whistleblower at Maine State Prison as a witness in a homicide case involving prison staff, who likely never will be prosecuted.

After several years of writing about systemic corruption within the state prison system, I switched my focus to county jails, thinking that because our sheriffs are elected, they would be more responsive to public pressure.

A recent experience with a county corrections system in Maine that has created an award-winning re-entry program, however, has cured me of such flights of fancy.

The hope of corrections and community working together to solve this blight on our nation’s landscape is just that – a flight of fancy.

The two cultures are such polar opposites that neither will ever be able to understand the other or give up enough control to empty our jails and prisons. The minds of the two are in different realms.

Two pedestrian factors point out these differences.

Who do you know in the general community whose vocation requires a uniform as a statement of authority and power?

Not even bus drivers and nurses wear uniforms these days. Few of us on the outside wear ties anymore except in places where they are required.

And then, can corrections staff members legitimately be expected to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism if their jobs depend on a steady flow of human misery and failure?

They cannot unless, of course, re-entry becomes a complimentary growth industry to corrections, depending on government grants for its sustainability.

Rather than work together to solve our mutual systemic embarrassment, departments of state and county corrections are now hiring grant writers to compete with social service agencies.

We can only hope that the government runs out of money soon enough to address this waste of human resources that characterizes our criminal justice system.

Compounding the problem is a legislature that smugly stands between the community and the corrections system, believing it is the arbiter of public safety.

As tough-on-crime legislation gets votes for re-election, the general public has put the fate of its children and loved ones in the hands of those with a cynical motive and little to lose by throwing them away.

Corrections revels in being functionaries in a growth industry beyond the intellectual capacity of the average citizen – “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen!”

Community is a fear-based culture that wants its neighborhoods to be squeaky clean of all semblance of evil, ignoring the fact that most crimes are committed by someone we know and to whom we have granted access to our money or our kids.

As with all civil rights movements, if real prison reform is to happen, it will be because a handful of advocates has taken to the streets.

Coffee klatches with corrections staff will not result in prison reform, only mere adjustments to program and policy to appease the growing awareness that we are treading water in a sewer.

As with the so-called “two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestine Territory, negotiation and collaboration are dead ends. What works best is Intifada – a “shaking off.”

My hope has been that the faith community in Maine will recognize its obligation to stand for social justice and call for reform of our laws and our system of dealing with those who have fallen through the cracks.

It will, however, take far more than Thanksgiving baskets and sending useful doodads into our jails and prisons. It will require getting down and dirty, a condition few in the faith community are inclined to assume.

Corrections jobs offer little or no career satisfaction or public approbation. Being a corrections officer does not play well at cocktail parties.

On the other hand, few in the community or in the fifth estate can get beyond the salacious impact of crime stories.

The sewer remains despite our efforts to plant resurrection lilies around its perimeter so that the public and its legislative voices will be satisfied that all is well.

Stan Moody, an American Baptist, has served as a chaplain at the maximum security Maine State Prison. This column first appeared on his website and is used by permission.