• Jon B. Comstock

Monday Matters - December 7 - Don't do the crime if don't want the time! Please stop saying.

Action Item: Refuse to remain unaware. Insist on learning. Read. Consider Christine Montross, M..D.’s “Waiting For An Echo – The Madness of American Incarceration”(2020).

I admit that I am trying to get your attention. But when you do think of our criminal justice system (with which you likely have had no adverse interaction), have you reduced it to an observation that it’s regrettable that people go to prison, but that they should have thought of that before violating some norm of society (i.e. a criminal law)?

Be assured, anyone who knows me is aware that I am not tied into the current thematic discussions of all of the reform that is needed in our system of justice – but I do gravitate to a term I hear being used a lot about being “woke”. You and I need to “be woke up” as to violence and injustice that has become a day-in and day-out experience for thousands in our criminal justice system. Folks, it is hidden from your view and perceptions – but if you have ever trusted anything I have to say on any topic, then know that the amount of violence that we are working on “the least among us” is horrific by any standard of humanity. Hyberbole? No. Day in and day out we in Arkansas are incarcerating far too many people (at a faster rate than almost every other state – just a few years ago Arkansas actually topped the list) in conditions that we would reject. We say we want safer communities and yet we engage in a concerted program of trauma infliction – not only on the incarcerated persons and their children, but on their guards and their families as well.

There is no shortage of horrendous data points, but consider the following few as simple examples:

· We have about 5% of the world’s population and about 25% of all incarcerated persons on the planet. This “mass incarceration” came about over the last 30-40 years.

· 70% of America’s incarcerated women are mothers of minor children.

· While people with psychiatric illnesses are far more likely to be victims of crimes than they are to be perpetrators, our prisons house about 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness, while only about 35,000 people with serious mental illness are being treated in state hospitals.

· When those with mental illness “act out” in prison, they typically go to what is called administrative segregation = Solitary Confinement – known to exacerbate symptoms of mental illness.

· Yet with all the trauma caused during our dehumanizing system, we overlook the fact that 95% of all inmates in America are eventually released back to our communities. Healthy and productive? Or broken and desperate?

· Our system of excessive punishment is not working. The current U.S. recidivism rate after nine years is 83%. More than three-fourths are coming back to prison.

With a sense of urgency, we have to demand that our Legislature allocate substantial funding to provide for access to mental health care in our State – and to aggressively come up with alternatives to incarceration.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote more than a century ago, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” This is not a question of whether we will tolerate lawlessness. It’s a question of whether we will insist on proportionality – the restraint that allows us to impose a rationale “discipline” without inflicting trauma. We have a choice – but our Legislators are as much in the dark as most of us. Let’s insist on shedding light on what we are doing through our own Government. Is it moral or just for us to lock up our most vulnerable neighbors into our most punitive environments?

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© Jon Comstock  for Arkansas 2020

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