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May 30, 2007 - Pasadena Weekly (CA)

Column: No More Prisons!

Stop Hurting And Start Helping Those Who Do Not Belong

By Hannah Naiditch

Our prison system is an embarrassment, not only because of how we treat our prisoners but because most of them should not be imprisoned in the first place.

As a civilized society we should not only support the use of medical marijuana but we should declare an end to the war on drugs, which has cost billions and has been a miserable failure. We should decriminalize, if not legalize, the personal use of drugs. We need to recognize that drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. Drugs rarely kill compared to the devastating effect of alcohol and tobacco. The focus must be on treatment and education, not incarceration.

Decriminalizing drugs would take the profits out of drug dealing, probably decrease the number of violent gangs and thereby reduce crime. Finally, decriminalizing drugs would empty out half of our prison population so we may again become a nation that spends more on education than we do on prisons.

Years ago foreign visitors were appalled at the condition of our prisons and since then things have only gotten worse. Prisons have become warehouses of the poor, especially minority poor and the mentally ill. If you are not mentally ill when admitted, you are bound to be mentally scarred when you are released.

In contrast, most of Europe, but especially some of the Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland, have progressive prisons. They respect the dignity of the prisoners and except for dangerous prisoners they get days off to spend time with family and friends. Finland's welfare society has a low crime rate and they practice "gentle" punishment from fines to probation to community service.

While the United States has 702 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants and Russia has 664, Finland has only 52 prisoners per 100,000, Denmark has 62 and Sweden has 64. Although they are much smaller in size and much more homogenous, there may be lessons to be learned.

Our prisons hold kids who were often incarcerated for the most minor infractions, and that is a scandal. "Juvenile delinquents" may be guilty of stealing to being absent from school to running away from an abusive home to borrowing a car without permission. Whatever the crime, prisons are not for kids.

Psychologists have discovered that while the brain develops in early childhood, the most advanced part of the brain does not develop until late adolescence. Kids lack mature judgment and can't be held accountable in the same way as adults.

It was in August 1971 that psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford decided to do a prison experiment that had unexpected consequences and made world news. It also raised a lot of questions about human beings under stress and the urgent need for prison reform.

Twenty-four males flipped coins to determine who would take on the role of a guard and who would be a prisoner. Guards were told that they must maintain "law and order." Guards were encouraged to develop their own strategies of prison management.

The two-week experiment had to be stopped after six days because the guards became dangerously cruel. As one guard said "I almost considered the prisoners as cattle." At least five prisoners had nervous breakdowns, begging to be released from the experiment.

All human beings have a breaking point. The experiment showed that tough prisons may be driving inmates to mental breakdowns and guards to unacceptable sadism.

Recently Zimbardo applied the results of his experiment to American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He concluded that very few people would not succumb to the culture of brutality that was part of Abu Ghraib.

Dog leashes, black hoods, wires and snarling dogs were not part of a soldier's basic equipment. It begs the question, where did it all come from? Who was responsible?

Prisons punish. They rarely rehabilitate. We must stop the culture of terror and brutality. We must get rid of the three-strike laws to avoid lengthy sentences for stealing a slice of pizza or a few cookies.

The US Supreme Court has maintained that grossly disproportionate penalties constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long."

Prisons are expensive to build. They were specifically designed to detain violent criminals, not for people who use drugs for personal use or steal cookies. With soaring prison populations, we must find alternative solutions. One thing is clear: "No more prisons!"

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