Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What the Parole Board Had For Breakfast

The phrase "you are what you eat" has become drastically watered-down in contemporary American parlance. It is now more or less synonymous with "eat your vegetables."

But to materialist nineteenth-century thinkers, saying "you are what you eat" was like a call to arms against idealist mumbo-jumbo. "Mann ist was mann esst," went the play on words in German.

The idea was that even ideas themselves do not spring immaculately from an amorphous, pristine realm of spirit that humans access through their minds. Thoughts, the argument goes, are merely the by-products of purely physical processes, with each of us caught in an unbreakable causal chain.

Dostoevsky rightly railed against this type of deterministic, linear explanation of human behavior. For after all, to describe human actions as merely the inescapable consequences of external stimuli is to deny free will. Humans, in short, are not Pavlov's dogs.

From our 21st-century vantage point, however, it would be naive to deny that those external stimuli can play a powerful role in affecting decisions. As Al Gore pointed out in The Assault on Reason, there are numerous factors that can get in the way of rational decision making.

For legal decisions, the "legal realists" who came on the scene in the 1930s asserted that those factors often include a judge's personality.  The notion was that "law is what the judge had for breakfast,"as one of my law professors put it to me at Valparaiso in the mid-80s.

I was reminded of this two weeks ago, when a newspaper columnist named Chuck Shepherd reported on a recently released research study of parole decisions.  According to the lead researcher, Prof. Jonathan Levav of Columbia University, there are spikes in the granting of parole after lunch or snack breaks. But parole gets harder and harder to get as morning or afternoon sessions grind on.

Humans aren't Pavlov's dogs, but food does influence people's moods - and that cannot help but affect decisions at times. To say that isn't to accept hardcore nineteenth materialism; it's simply to acknowledge human limits.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Word of God Speak - Even in Prison

Two weeks ago, I worshipped with New Beginnings Church at the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility. I was there in Denver with other members of the board of Prison Congregations of America, which helps facilitate the founding of congregations like New Beginnings.

One of the centerpieces of the two-hour within-the-walls church experience was the song Word of God Speak. It was familiar to me from contemporary worship services I've attended in recent years.

It's a wonderful song inside the walls or out. Some of the words, however, carried extra depth when sung from the depths of prison.

"To be still and know
That You're in this place
Please let me stay and rest
In Your holiness
Word of God speak"

The simple words and gentle music indeed helped us all know that God was. is, and will be in that place - and in all places where people are sent as punishment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

3 Strikes and You're Out is Not Immutable

In Apple Valley, Minnesota, second graders at bat in their youth baseball league get five strikes, not three.

Even in baseball, the rule of “three strikes and you’re out” is not immutable.

This point needs to be considered when evaluating California’s notorious “three strikes” law that sends those convicted of a third felony to prison for a sentence of from 25 years to life. Even if the third offense was shoplifting.

A Stanford law professor, Michael Romano, calls it “the worst criminal law in the country.” I think he’s right.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Derek Boogard: Split Personality?

In Newjack, his account of working as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison, Ted Conover writes of the travails of corrrectional officer work.

Being "society's proxies," is a difficult job. Conover recounts a story of the ice-breaking joke told by a trainer to the cadets seeking to become COs in the New York State system in the 1990s.

"What's the first three things you get when you become a CO?" the trainer asks. The punchline was: "An car. A gun. A divorce."

Gallows humor, to be sure. The (relative) financial security represented by the car comes from excersing power (the gun) in a soul-sapping system of incarceration. The relentless cops-and-robbers role-playing takes a toll not only on the officer, but on his or her family. Hence the inclusion of divorce in the bitter joke.

I was reminded of this Conover material when reading press accounts over the weekend of the death of Derek Boogard, the former on-ice enforcer for the Minnesota Wild hockey team. According to the Star Trib, the guy was a sweetheart off the ice.

On the ice, however, he took on the role of tough guy. Boogard scored only three goals in his six-year career. But he carved out a niche for himself as a fighter in a fast, violent sport - a niche that his skating and puck handling skills alone would not have merited.

Boogard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment at the age of 28. Though his history of history of concussions may have been a factor in his untimely death, the press also reported that he had entered the NHL's substance abuse program.

What follows is purely speculation on my part. But could it be that Boogard had trouble squaring his on-ice fighter role with the good guy he sought to be in every other realm? If so, Boogard's problems with substance addiction may have reflected a split personality in need of integration.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trust Within the Walls

“Trust, but verify,” was President Reagan’s shorthand phrase for his stance in nuclear arms control talks with Mikhail Gorbachev.

A generation later, as applied to American airport security, the phrase is need of amendment. Verify, yes — but there’s no trust.

A week ago, I experienced this trying to get through security at the Denver airport. I was pulled out of line, an officer opened my carry-on bag, and my shampoo was confiscated. Because I don’t fly all that often, I had inadvertently violated the “3-1-1” rule put in place at some point after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

3-1-1 stands for 3 ounces of liquid, packed in 1 clear plastic, with no more than one bag per person.

The officer who opened my carry on and took my shampoo was respectful. But it was weird to be in a position where the entire relationship was premised on the absence of trust. That is the very opposite of relational dynamics under which most of us try to live our lives.

The experience did, however, help me understand better what it must be like to be in prison. Being an inmate must be somewhat like going through airport security 24/7, every day for months and years on end.

In this sense, my encounter with Denver’s strict airport security was a fitting conclusion to my trip to attend the spring board meeting of Prison Congregations of America. For PCA seeks to break down the walls of mistrust within the walls of correctional institutions by creating Christian congregations among inmates.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lee Baca Raises the Education Bar

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste," went the old tagline for the United Negro College Fund. It dates me a bit, I realize, even to remember those long-ago TV commercials.

The truth of the statement, however, remains unalterably true. Indeed, it is truer than ever, given how closely tied job prospects  have become to educational attainment.

For that reason, one of the nation's most prominent law enforcement officers has become the champion for putting in place programs for inmates to get a better education. As NPR recently reported, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in instituting an Education-Based Incarceration Initiative to promote intellectual development among prisoners in his 160,000-inmate jail system.

The program is now in a beta phase, with about 2,000 inmates testing an ambitious curriculum. The areas of instruction range from traditional subjects like reading, writing, and science to life skills and decision-making. The instruction is intended to help inmates progess to more adult levels of thinking, in which they make better choices and commit fewer new crimes.

Jail is, admittedly, a rather unlikely setting for a renewed emphasis on education. For one thing, jail stays tend to be quite short compared to prison sentences. But Baca clearly believes that improved education has to start somewhere, if we are ever to make real progress in reducing the recidivism rate.

As NPR said in its clever headline, the sheriff is attempting to teach inmates to get out of jail. Not by physical escape, but by an education that is the key to the future.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Moses: Ex-Offender in a Grand Narrative

Cecil B. Demille's  film The Ten Commandments is still a grand cinematic event, even on the small screen, 55 years after its first release.

To ironic, postmodern senibilities, suspicious of any attempt at "grand narrative," the film's sweeping historical claims are not sustainable. And indeed, one cannot help but detect Cold War influences in Demille's grandiose presentation.

This is especially the case, for example, when the off-screen narrator asserts in a booming, not-be-questioned voice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt marked the Birth of Freedom into the world. I interpret this as Demille's response to the climate of McCarthyism that pervaded the 1950s, when fears of godless communism were irrationally strong. At such a time, the Judeo-Christian tradition seemed to offered a bulwark of defense against the officially atheist Soviet Union and its competing grand narrative of Marism-Leninism.

What I was most struck by, however, as I watched the film on Saturday in Holy Week, was its depiction of the story of Moses as the story of the rehabilitation of an ex-offender. This is an aspect of Moses' weighty historical persona that is not as widely known as it should be. But it is a timely one, because ex-offender reentry is one of the major issues our society faces in this age of mass incarceration.

The Book of Exodus, Chapter 2, mentions Moses' killing of an Egyptian overseer and his flight from Pharoah's wrath into the land of Midian. In Chapter 3, God appears in the Burning Bush. After some complicated, heart-to-heart negotiations with God, Moses returns to Egypt in a new role: not the privileged prince, not the wanted felon, but spokesman for an emerging people seeking justice.

Charlton Heston, who plays Moses in an iconic role, was widely known later in life as the face of the National Rifle Assocation. But I suggest that Heston's image could be recast. His Moses is an inspiring example of an ex-offender who turned his life around and built community.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pray for Bin Laden ... and Everyone Else

Reaching for the snooze button on my alarm-clock radio, I heard news that would send me back nearly ten years.

It was a bright, beautiful September morning, I was sitting in my car in the Shopko parking lot; I needed a binder. I remember being shocked; telling myself that what was being said on the radio was a bad comedy skit by a couple of misguided radio hosts. Sadly, it wasn’t. There was an “accident” in New York.

It wasn’t too shortly thereafter I remember first hearing the name Osama Bin Laden.

On a chilly May morning, nearly ten years later, the news crackling through the radio told me that Osama Bin Laden was dead. My reaction wasn’t what I anticipated. Not at all.

I figured the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death would bring me elation; a sense that justice had finally been served on the man who planned the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent men and women. Instead, I prayed. I prayed for his soul. I prayed that he had an opportunity to repent of his life’s sins. Only a day after the Feast of Divine Mercy, I prayed that he found and trusted in the love and mercy of our Lord.

As I thought more about my unanticipated reaction it started to make more sense. We are to pray for our brothers and sisters, especially those that would do us or others harm – in other words sinners. I guess more clearly stated, everyone; we are to pray for everyone. Those in Guantanamo, those in prison, those with addiction, those who gossip…the list goes on.

But mostly I thought about those who harm others, and not just the Bin Ladens of the world. I thought about how much they need our prayers.

I thought of the profound effects of prayer. Conversion. Repentance. Grace. Mercy. I thought about Abby Johnson’s story; how she went from running an abortion center to being welcomed with open arms into the Catholic Church. How through prayer, those who engage in or support (explicitly and/or implicitly) the genocide – when you reach tens of millions lost, this word seems appropriate – of the unborn through abortion may come to a moment of conversion and ask for and receive forgiveness.

If St. Paul can convert, we all can.

The Lord told Saint Faustina that he was a God of mercy, not judgment. May we all trust in the mercy of the Lord.

St. Faustina, pray for us.

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.