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Prison Myth No.

3: “Politics is the
Enemy”
December 30, 2009

Following my recent column on “Corrections as a Growth Industry,” I


received a blistering series of emails from a high profile employee at Maine
State Prison. It is her belief that blind duty is the high road (on which I
reportedly bailed by abandoning my post as Chaplain), and politics (defined
as any kind of public discourse) is the low road.
Here are a few excerpts from her observations:
· Politics and exhibitionism has never been an interest of
mine. Notoriety at the expense of others diminishes the
originator more than exemplifies. That which we least want
to exalt becomes explicatory (self-evident). If change for
others is your goal, then perhaps the fortitude to stick
around and extend blessings to all would have worked
wonders. Platforms, campaigns, public opinion – how
superficial; sounds awful!
· It’s a wonderful thing to have a soap box to pontificate
from – a cause and campaign. If you desert the trenches,
then from whence does your foundation stand? Compassion
for everyone – not just a select few.
· If only it were not for those damned trees, the forest is
right in front of you. Respect is earned; not given carte
blanche.
These sentiments are very worthy ones but go to the root of
systemic problems within the prison systems in our nation. A shroud of
secrecy envelops our maximum security prisons because of people so
committed to their personal versions of the greater good that they overlook
the very cancer that ultimately destroys their mission.
Is it possible to initiate prison reform without some kind of public
scrutiny of what you are attempting to reform? Can it be done merely by
“extending blessings to all”? If the greater good is being served, why not let
the public know of that good? Can you justify a wall of silence when a few
are denied their basic Constitutional rights because of arbitrary discipline,
bigotry and hate?
It is that very wall of silence that builds a culture of distrust among
and between staff and prisoners. Let me give you an example from my
experience at Maine State Prison.
An inmate confided in me as Chaplain that there were several
inmates who were pushing their weight around as part of the “Rat and
Skinner (sex offender) Patrol” that caused the injuries leading to the death of
inmate Sheldon Weinstein on April 24, 2009. I reported the conversation and
the names of the people involved but refused to disclose the name of the
inmate who confided in me. Logically, I felt that if the informant was
disclosed, he would be targeted as a “Rat.”
There was an official but veiled attempt on the part of upper
management at the prison to initiate a discipline action against me for failing
to disclose my source. The ground for this demand was, to my great
surprise, that there is no clergy/client privilege between Chaplain and
inmate. In fact, I could have been criminally prosecuted by the Attorney
General’s Office as an accessory after the fact had an assault occurred after
my disclosure.
My ace in the hole – one that should now come as a surprise to upper
management – is that I had already been given permission by the inmate to
disclose his name. I was protecting him out of respect for his safety.
Meanwhile, the legs were cut out from my effectiveness as a confidant.
Who would confide in a Chaplain who has to reveal his source? The
official answer is that this applies only when security is threatened, a rather
subjective judgment at best. Suppose a homosexual inmate should confess
his guilt to the Chaplain? The Chaplain is then required to report the
confidence and identify the inmate because there is a policy directive from
the Department of Corrections of a zero tolerance for sex within this high-
testosterone, 1,000 man facility.
This kind of policy making that discourages the flow of information is
the centerpiece of a history of violence and abuse within prisons. The
greater good being a subjective judgment that Chaplains, Educators,
Librarians, Social Workers, Medical personnel, Substance Abuse counselors,
Case Workers and others make, everybody’s sense of the greater good is
different. Too often, the greater good gets tangled up with the need for a job
overriding the desire to do the right thing.
In order to protect our own turf, we turn to protecting the turf of
other staff members through a shroud of secrecy. Under those conditions,
violence and abuse are swept under the rug, so long as there is not an
unattended death, the trigger for outside investigation.
Bruce Franklin, John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American
Studies at Rutgers University, recently wrote and published an article
entitled, “The American Prison and the Normalization of Torture.” Dr.
Franklin begins that article with the following observations about the public
interest:

The prison has become a central institution in


American society, integral to our politics, economy, and
culture. Between 1976 and 2000, the United States built on
average a new prison each week and the number of
imprisoned Americans increased tenfold. With a current
prison and jail population of over two million, America has
become the uncontested world leader in incarceration. Prison
has made the threat of torture part of everyday life for
millions of individuals in the United States, especially the 6.9
million currently incarcerated or otherwise under the control
of the penal system. More insidiously, our prison system has
helped make torture a normal, legitimate, even routine part
of American culture.

All this, one could say, is the result of prison employees creating a
shroud of secrecy by yielding to their own sense of what is the greater good,
a self-righteous exercise at best and complicit to torture and abuse at worst.
In Maine, there are over 4,000 inmates and nearly 10,000 out there
under the probation system, both increasing at the rate of nearly 9% a year.
At an annual cost of nearly $1,000 for every family in Maine, is it not time
that those paying the bill had a look at what they are buying and to expect a
professional performance across the board?
All this could be greatly reduced by transferring non-violent prisoners
to home confinement, building a public/private initiative for successful re-
entry and opening the prison system to pubic scrutiny and accountability.
Let me remind you of some favorite heroes of history who steadfastly
refused to ignore abuse in the interest of advancing their own versions of the
greater good, beginning, of course, with Jesus Christ: Martin Luther, Martin
Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, St. Paul. Those are a few
off the top of my head.
More important, however, are those people “in the trenches” who
daily put their own job security and social agendas on the line in the interest
of doing the right thing rather than the expedient thing, which is, of course,
to remain silent and congratulate yourself for your good work.