April 10, 2016 ~ Humans: Angels or Demons? Lockdown America

By Art McDonald

While in Seminary in the mid-1970s, I spent two summers in Nashville, Tenn., working with a chaplain at Vanderbilt U, a great mentor, Jack Hickey, on a project with prisoners from the state penitentiary. Jack wanted university students, most of whom were very privileged, to directly interact with prisoners, many of whom had committed violent crimes, and almost all were not very privileged. So he purchased a big house in a very affluent neighborhood near the university and renovated it with the idea that students and prisoners would live together; it was, in a word, brilliant. Students could model “success” and life goals; prisoners could share real life and difficult upbringings with little likelihood of stability and success.

My job the first year was to manage the renovation of the house by begging donations of materials and picking up prisoners who were close to release to come every day to do the actual work.  The second year, my job was to manage the house, now fully occupied. I liked most of the prisoners and developed deep personal connections to them; the students were a mixed bag but teachable. Nevertheless, I had to admit, the prisoners were a tough crowd and most of their crimes were serious. The cook, a man named “pop” Goodman, was asked one day: “so pop,” one student asked at breakfast, “what did you do to get time in prison?” “I poisoned my wife,” he responded without hesitation. “What about you,” Ernest Boggs, asked another? “Killed a man who cheated me,” he responded with little remorse. To another, nicknamed “quarter flat,” a student asked: “How’d you get your nickname?” “25 years straight sentence,” he responded, “no parole.” One day I caught “quarter-flat” smoking pot in the house; drugs and weapons were not allowed. Though generally very congenial, probably in the eyes of the ex-offenders, a soft touch, I got right in his face and said one more violation and back to jail with you, Flat! Understood? I had no idea I had that in me.

My most difficult assignment, though, was not as manager of the house, rather it was putting on my clerical attire and visiting prisoners still in jail, especially those in solitary. It was frightening; they were like caged animals. I always dreaded such visits; the guards were hostile, jaded and mean, the prisoners desperate and ill. Seemed like a description of hell if it actually existed. I can envision those visits to this day and it horrifies me. That was 1977, shortly before the explosion of what is referred to as “mass incarceration” in this country. We started to get tough on crime in the 1980s and went from 2 or 300,000 prisoners nation-wide to the current number of well over 2 million. As an example, the state of Pennsylvania went from 8,000 locked up in 1980 to 50,000 currently. The U.S. now has 25% of the world’s imprisoned people, a disproportionate number of those young black males.

I was thinking about all of this the other night as I watched a 60 Minutes segment on prisons in Germany; it was mind-blowing. I recommend you access it on line. Although they showed several prisons in Germany, the one they highlighted was a maximum security; all of the prisoners had done serious, generally violent crimes – mostly murders. In the segment, they interviewed prisoners and the prison head, a trained psychologist.  The prison was like a college dorm. The rooms were individual, spacious and pleasant with private bathrooms, a desk and soft chairs, windows, and a door for privacy. The prisoners all had their own keys and walked around freely. There was constant activity and counseling, life-planning seminars, painting and yoga, and the outside was fenced in, not walled in, so the prisoners could see beauty and nature. The prison guards were paid very well and received two full years of study in psychology and conflict resolution; they were trained to not exercise power but to create calm; treat prisoners not as the enemy but as human beings. The atmosphere seemed very relaxed and guards and prisoners related freely. The interviewer from 60 Minutes kept asking questions like but aren’t these guys dangerous? Isn’t this too comfortable and easy? Shouldn’t they be paying for their crimes? Shouldn’t prison be for PUNISHMENT, to which the prison director said an emphatic NO. They are not here to be punished but to be “Reintegrated!”

The segment went on to say that this system was not utopia; there were issues, e.g., violence, crime and drugs. There is no death penalty in Germany, nor life imprisonment without parole, though one fellow interviewed had been in for 18 years and his release was nowhere in sight. He didn’t seem to understand why – he simply said “they think I’m a bad person” – and privacy laws prevented the investigator to find out what his crimes were – he admitted they were terrible – or why he wasn’t being released. Some Germans think the whole system is too lenient. Frankly, I was totally blown away. The German model, similar in other Western European countries, couldn’t be more different than in the States. What is going on? How to explain this? Cultures differ and we are a different society than Germany but aren’t we all human beings? How to start to understand this?

Many things were spinning around in my head as I watched but I think the most striking, the moment that most got my attention was when the U.S. interviewer said shouldn’t they be “punished” and the prison director said no, they are human beings that need to be “re-integrated” if at all possible. So is that it? We have strikingly different views of what is a human being and why some do terrible things? Why do we treat prisoners as if they have no rights and need punitive measures; almost as if we want to make sure they suffer? Is it our aggressive capitalist system that has produced this in which we now have made private, for profit prisons and prison companies lobby politicians to build more prisons? Is it our individualism, our libertarianism, that separates us from those who exhibit poor behavior and makes us totally unconcerned? Is it our theology, possibly a remnant of the ancient biblical story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and subsequent theologies of Original Sin? Who are we that we are inclined to punish others rather than “reintegrate” them?

When some of us read religion scholar Karen Armstrong’s book on “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” she suggested that each of us has an “old brain” “ruthlessly selfish…egotistical…bequeathed to us by the reptiles…(and focused) on four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing and fornication – reproduction…( and primarily interested in ) survival” and the “new brain…home of the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves…our two brains coexist uneasily,” argues Armstrong, finally concluding that “…we are hard-wired for compassion as well as for cruelty.”

As UUs, we come out of the ancient biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, but in our beliefs about the human condition I think it’s accurate to say that we have been most influenced by a certain kind of liberalism that focuses on the basic goodness of human beings; “Original Blessing,” if you will rather than “Original Sin.” We like to remind ourselves that we are “made in the image of God,” as the book Genesis suggests, and, in similar fashion expressing our closeness to Godliness, as in Psalm 8: “What is man, that you are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou has made him little lower than the angels.

Nevertheless, as our own great theologian, James Luther Adams, has written as he spent a lifetime trying to bring better balance to our UU theology or anthropology, attempting to “transform liberalism,” angels we are not; truth is, for Adams, not unlike Armstrong, there is a fundamental contradiction in our natures as we are “conditioned by both inner and outer non-rational or irrational forces” – our tragic side, if you will. That is, we can be very “biased” and overly “self-interested” especially if we have a certain “conditioning” and we are all conditioned by family, friends, institutions like churches and clubs, and society at large or maybe our former lives. As an example, Adams, a brilliant theologian and social commentator, wrote and preached as far back as the 1940s that concentration of wealth and power, and I might add corruption, was a key factor in bringing about the worst in all of us – it leads to anger on those left out, fear that they don’t have the security or resources to care for their families, and reaction to anyone who poses a threat to all of that, for example, poor people or foreigners, immigrants. Adams was brilliant on this. Doesn’t this sound appropriate for the current moment?

So for Jim Adams, one way to bring out our better angels and to encourage our best selves was to make sure society was more fair and more caring and more just and equitable. On a more personal level, Karen Armstrong would suggest a 12 step way of encouraging our better, more compassionate sides to emerge; for Armstrong, on a personal level, good, compassionate behavior takes practice. For Adams, if we expect better behavior from our citizens we must create better conditions; we must make sure our leaders and our institutions are working for the common good and not their own private gain.

Whatever the explanation is, and however each of our anthropologies or theologies understand the human condition and human beings, my own view is that currently, despite meeting wonderful people all of the time, there is something very ill, very sick going on in our society and the mass incarceration of over 2 million of our fellow Americans is merely a symptom of this sickness.  The most extreme form of this sickness it seems to me is a “punishment” called solitary confinement. Solitary confinement means locking up prisoners for 23 hours a day, often in very small cells with light from tiny windows. A close friend from Pittsburgh who has been in this pulpit, Jules Lobel, a professor of Law at the U. of Pgh., along with a legal project called the Center for Constitutional Rights, has been litigating against this practice of solitary confinement across the U.S. as cruel and unusual punishment, the very definition of torture. He is currently advocating for a prisoner in Pennsylvania who has been in solitary for 35 years; his most recent reason for this confinement is he tried to escape. Jules and his colleagues just scored a major victory with the State of California. It’s a landmark victory which should spur reform all across the country. There is so much more to do but there is great hope at the moment. There is now a national movement to reverse mass incarceration and promote serious prison reform and, remarkably, although for differing motivations, both Republicans and Democrats are on similar pages. Here in Massachusetts our ECCO group is part of a coalition with a  prison-reform organization made up of ex-offenders that are slowly but surely succeeding in getting the legislature to pass reform bills. Just recently the Mass. Legislature passed a reform bill so that released drug offenders can immediately apply for licenses, thus increasing the possibility of finding employment. Previously they had to wait 5 years to apply. It’s a victory in a long struggle for change. This is the institutional/structural change that Adams has been calling for to bring out our better selves. But there is still much work to be done in bringing about changes in attitudes, maybe even in theologies, so that our “new brains,” to use Armstrong’s words, our more compassionate selves can take charge, so that our response to crime might focus less on punishment and more on empathy and reintegration as in the German system.

While in Nashville those many years ago I was reminded one day that lock them up and throw the keys away mentality, the attitude that offenders need to be punished, that some people are just bad or evil, is not only to be found in the general or free population, but that it was also true off some of prisoners and ex-prisoners themselves. One day, in a conversation with my friend Ernest, who had done hard time for murder, and was currently employed by the prison project, we had a serious disagreement about the human condition, about human beings and the need for prisons. I must have been spewing some of my most liberal Catholic theology at Ernest when he proceeded to pull out a handgun, prohibited in the house, and said to me he wouldn’t go anywhere without it because most of these characters in jail and those we were living with, he suggested, would kill either one of us in an instant if it served his purposes. Then he stared at me very hard and said, with a smirk, “You’re a good man, Art McDonald, but there ain’t no demand!” The “old brain” and the “new brain” were at a standoff, even though we both had a good laugh.