I was visiting my sister last week (hence GG graciously filling in for me<LINK>), and we binge watched the Netflix Original series Orange is the New Black. Have you seen it? If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a thirteen episode TV series inspired by Piper Kerman’s memoir about her year incarcerated in a minimum security prison. I highly recommend it if you’re not bothered by nudity and graphic sex. Oh, and a cliffhanger of a season finale. The new season starts June 7!
Kerman’s real story is the kind of gonzo thing that sounds like fiction. She’s from a stable family, went to college, is capable and smart…and for a couple years in her early 20s, dated a heroin smuggler. Kerman didn’t do drugs or involve herself with that side of her girlfriend’s life (other than traveling together), but once when her smuggler-girlfriend was in dire straits, Kerman flew a suitcase of cash across international lines for her. Not long after that, Kerman realized that if she stayed it was likely she would continue to get more involved in smuggling and broke off their relationship. Four years later, after Kerman had completely moved on with her life– settling down in the West Village with a boyfriend, a job as a freelance producer, and a new circle of stable friends–her ex was caught, and Kerman was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. Six years after that, she went to prison.
The Netflix series takes some liberties, like redubbing the lead character Piper Chapman, but the early scene in which Piper’s fiance drives her to prison to “surrender,” is almost identical to Kerman’s description of her own surrender written for the New York Times. Piper is painfully WASP-y, and the showrunners capitalize on this. From the beginning it’s clear that this blond, successful woman who does juice cleanses with her sweetheart fiance doesn’t belong in prison with all these other women. And with that lead in, the show slowly begins to question whether any of these women–or society in general–are served well by the prison system.
In America, we live with a punitive justice system. My state, Texas, is absolutely infamous for it. At some point, I think while I was still teaching high school, I realized I don’t believe in punishment. Consequences, yes. Punishment, no. And episode after episode, Orange is the New Black pretty much nails why.
Fostering classes clarify the difference between punishment and consequence this way: A consequence is a logical repercussion stemming from a person’s action. A punishment is an unrelated repercussion designed to degrade, demoralize, or cause pain in order to discourage future wrongdoing. For a parental example (since I’m most familiar with this concept through fostering classes), spanking a child for stealing cookies is a punishment. A consequence might be not giving her a slice of the special dessert everyone else has at dinner because she already ate her sweet for the day.
Humans are wired to avoid pain and social stigma–the cornerstones of punishment. But that’s as likely to mean we learn better ways to get away with it as it is to mean we change the undesirable behavior. Many social scientists believe that consequences have a higher likelihood of retraining behavior than punishment with fewer unintended consequences. A child who has to clean the wall they drew on is a lot less likely to do it again than a child who is put into time out. Consequences reinforce empathy (somebody had to clean the wall because you drew on it–if you weren’t caught, somebody who did nothing wrong would have this work). They create self-worth instead of destroying it (you made a problem, but you fixed it, instead of you made a problem and somebody else fixed it while you were shamed). They also typically make the negative measure/action easier to handle because it’s clearly connected as opposed to arbitrary (what does time out have to do with drawing on the wall?). My personal experience fostering children has led me to believe in this wholeheartedly. Granted, it ain’t easy to do. There were times where I was absolutely confounded for some sort of logical consequence for something our girls pulled. But TheScott and I followed this philosophy as best we could, and it worked.
I don’t believe adults are different than children in this way. We like things to make sense. We behave better when we empathize with the people around us. We want to feel worthwhile and capable. Creating consequences for a crime as opposed to punishing a criminal helps people retain their dignity and grow into stronger people.
How do we in the US apply that to the prison system? I don’t know exactly. I do think we put too many people in prison. I knew our rate was high, but I didn’t realize before writing this that when it comes to incarceration rates, we’re #1. In the world. With .72% of our population in prison, we’ve got 1.5 times Russia’s incarceration rate, 2.5 times Iran’s, and 6 times China’s. Piper Kerman being sent to prison ten years after she’s realized her mistake and moved on does no good whatsoever. But then, again, punishing a drug dealer who’s been punished her whole life by poverty, hunger, and living surrounded by drugs and gangs doesn’t do any good, either. And is likely to produce a repeat offender.
Europe puts fewer people in prison and has prisons that focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment--with a far lower recidivism rate than the US (rate of people returning to prison). Rehabilitation and finding alternatives to prison (such as community service) are shifts from punitive justice, in which prison is seen as a demoralizing punishment intended to discourage people from crime, to a justice system based on consequences where prison is seen as a place for retraining. A premiere and controversial example is Norway’s Bastøy prison, known as the nicest prison in the world. It’s an island with no fences, unarmed guards, and no uniforms where the inmates garden, ride horses, and cook their own lunches and breakfasts. And it houses murderers. But if you’re talking results that do a society good, within two years of being released, Bastøy has a 16% recidivism rate–compared to the US’s staggering 48%-60%. Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, Bastøy’s governor said, “If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?”
I think that’s exactly the question we need to decide. I’ve spent most of my life hearing prison spoken of as a place where criminals are punished, getting their deserved comeuppance. But I don’t see how that does society any good. If prisons were a place where we socialized people and then sent them back into the world with the tools to work within society, wouldn’t that make the country a nicer place for everyone to live?
Have you seen Orange is the New Black? Did it make you think?
[On a related note that didn’t fit in the text but I can’t not add…
I haven’t seen 2013 statistics yet. But in 2012, the US is also one of only 21 countries who performed capital punishment, coming in fifth in number of executions behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Over a quarter of the US’s executions were done in my state, Texas, which if counted by itself, would’ve taken Afghanistan’s 8th place ranking. I’m going to say that again. In 2012 Texas had a smaller population yet more executions than Afghanistan.]