A few weeks ago I did another weekend-long Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshop at the pen. As always, I came back dragging. Three days is a long time, and it's a hard time, but then again, I wouldn't miss it for the world. There are infinitely worse ways of spending my time. (I know; I've done it.)
The workshop was crowded: 21 of us jammed into a 10 x 12 room. All ages, races, religions, crimes. Quite a mix. There are always those who drive you crazy, those who give you hope, those who you want to never see again, and those who break your heart. I'll never forget the very young man who said that maybe meth wasn't all bad: at least when he did meth with his dad, his dad talked to him...
This time the heartbreaker was a mentally handicapped young man, whom I will call Lennie. He had a great time at the workshop. As I said later on, "AVP is one of the few places where adults will play nicely with him." And where he won't get made fun of, or insulted, or shoved around, or robbed, or beaten up, or raped, or killed. We generally have a Lennie in every workshop: They might not understand AVP, but they know it's safe. And there aren't that many safe places in prison for the weak, the elderly, the physically or mentally ill, the physically or mentally handicapped.
Those are pretty horrendous statistics. And when we come to addiction: well, 65% of all inmates meet the criteria for addiction, and alcohol and other drugs are "significant factors in all crimes, including 78 percent of violent crimes, 83 percent of property crimes and 77 percent of public order, immigration or weapons offenses as well as probation and parole violations." http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/40/3/E11.full
As Alex Briscoe, the health director for Alameda County in northern California, said “We’ve, frankly, criminalized the mentally ill, and used local jails as de facto mental health institutions."
Yes, Lennie's been convicted of a crime, but he swore he didn't do it. He might be right. He might have made an easy scapegoat for someone else. (It's been known to happen.) He also might not have understood what he did, or what he was actually convicted of. I've run into that before, too. I've also met Lennies who had no idea at all why they were there - just that something bad had happened, and they were locked up.
I don't know which of these is worse. What I do know is that putting a Lennie in prison doesn't do any kind of good, unless the idea really is for them to be repeatedly assaulted, robbed, humiliated, raped, and/or killed. Again, there are no medications that will make Lennie more than 10 years old. He will never get "better". He will never "learn his lesson," "pay his debt to society" or "grow up" because he can't, and there isn't a damn thing that can ever be done to make that happen.
So what do you do with Lennie? In my perfect world, Lennie would be in a group home, where he can be given care in a safe, structured, respectful environment where adults will let him play games. But putting Lennie in prison is as cruel as taking your 10 year old child, or grandchild - no matter what they did - and putting that child in prison and saying, "Well, that's the way the justice system works". Or, "Yes, a group home would be better, but we just don't have the resources for it." If that's our justice system, it sucks so much swamp water, we've got alligators. And if we don't have the resources - i.e., money - for such things, again I ask, what is money for?
To be honest, if this is the best we can do, and if there isn't going to be any change... What is right? What is just? What is cruel and unusual? What do you do when the situation is hopeless?
All I can think of is the ending in Of Mice and Men:
The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again... Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. "Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes." - John Steinbeck, "Of Mice and Men."