Saturday, November 13, 2010

What's in a Name?

Using preposterously high quantity to express the unquantifiable, the singer Bruce Cockburn once wrote a song referring to "the nine billion names of God."

Even when taking poetic license similar to Cockburn's, there are not nearly that many names for "correctional facility." But there are still quite a few, and the nuances are important.

Jail and prison, of course, are still standard terms. They are often wrongly used interchangably, when in fact the terms refer to qualitatively different types of facilities.

Jails are usually operated at the local (county) level and confine people who come from a number of different statuses. One type is convicted offenders whose sentences are for less than one year. But jail populations also often include many other people. Some are waiting for trial, while others are being confined for civil contempt or even non-payment of debts. Still others have been arrested but not yet charged.

Prison, in America, has historically been a place where convicted offenders serving sentences of a year or more are sent. Each state has at least one, and the federal government operates it own system in addition to the state systems.

Traditionally, there was more programming (substance abuse treatment, sex offender treatment, and so on) in prison than in jail. This was because the shorter length of stay in jail did not lend itself as well to successful programming. Today, however, with budgets cuts eroding prison programming, the difference that formerly existed between jail and prison regarding the extent of programming is eroding as well.

In an earlier era of corrections, the operative words were not jail or prison, but penitentiary or reformatory. These names, with their religious origins, pointed to the rehabilitative goal that once animated American corrections. Each person, the thought was, should use the incarceration time to reflect on his or her errors and work to expiate and reform them, in order to become a socially responsible self once again.

In the last few decades, the rehabilitative idea has been in decline and punishment as the primary purpose of incarceration has been ascendant. The term "correctional facility" is therefore the signature one of our time, expressing a sort of bureaucratic indifference to the outcome of what occurs within the walls.

One example of this was related to me by my colleague Gloria, with whom I serve on the board of Prison Congregations of America. Gloria tells the story of how, while serving a sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, she and the other inmates woke up one morning to find that the new governor had changed the name. It was no longer a penitentiary; it was a "correctional facility."

But the generic term "correctional facility," and the commonly used "jail" and "prison," cannot completely displace the many other terms that are in use, either historically or in specific communities.

In the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde wrote a poem about being confined to "gaol" - an old word that is etymologically related to jail.

The word "prison" has a host of synonyms, such as "the big house."

The children's novelist Lemony Snicket used the word "brig" in one of his novels and defined it as "an official nautical term for jail."

Star Trek fans know that even in the 23rd century, the Starship Enterprise had a brig for detention purposes. Give Trek creator Gene Rodenberry credit there for a realistic appraisal of the human condition. As much as I have decried excessive incarceration in this blog, I do not suggest that human society can or should try to go without it.

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