Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, December 10, 2016

I promised Russell I would ask you something.

We met last week in a medium-security correctional facility. There, I spent a couple of hours talking with a group of men who are studying for their GED. I stressed to them the need for long-term goals, the critical importance of education in an era where good-paying, low-skill jobs are going away, and the importance of refusing to allow oneself to be defined by whatever box of race or class society has placed you in. It was toward the end that Russell asked a question whose exact wording I can’t recall, but whose gist was a simple challenge:

What are you going to do to help me when I get out?

He meant me, personally. And he meant you, personally.

Perhaps the question makes you indignant. This would not surprise me. A generation of conservative “reform” on issues of criminal justice has encouraged many of us to believe the only thing we “owe” those who break the law is punishment, followed by punishment, along with punishment and then punishment. It is a seductive line of reasoning. Who among us is not made furious by those men and women who break and enter and steal and damage and violate and maim and kill and thereby rob us of the right to feel secure in our own persons?

Small wonder, then, that harsh, endless punishment has come to seem such an absolute good that politicians of both the right and the left stumble all over themselves to prove they are “tough on crime.” And none of them dare speak a word about rehabilitation, for mortal fear of being declared that hated other thing: “soft” on crime.