In the past there was a childhood development movement that states "it takes a village to raise a child". That mantra became very popular and inspired many community preschool and early intervention facilities. The truth is that it takes a village to have a healthy human....PERIOD. The need for community, for positive reinforcement, for support and to maintain a healthy psyche does not end with early childhood. We need human interaction and relationship in order to be healthy and balanced.
One of the strangest things about our incarceration practices, prison policies and the recent changes in visitation (video visits) is the fact that it seeks to destroy relationship rather than create strong healthy ones. First a person who is incarcerated may find him/herself housed in a facility 100, 200 or 300 miles from home. This makes it very difficult for families to visit on a regular basis. Visiting days are on weekends (fri, sat and sun) when many individuals may have to work. Add to that the high cost of phone communication and an incarcerated person finds that he is cut off from family. All these facts are well known and are not surprising to those of us who advocate for prison reform but I have another side of this break in relationships of persons who are incarcerated that we may not have considered before.
Think of any one of the juveniles who have been held in prison from the age of 16 or 17. He has grown up in prison, created relationships in prison and found his community in prison. Strange thought isn't it? All of his friends are people serving time in prison. Now remember that those held in prison move around. Some are released on parole. Some fail on parole and return. Some are transferred from one facility to another. Some are sent to administrative segregation. Some die. Since these young people have been inside the "prison community" for 10, 15 or 20+ years, they have met many people and made friends. They know people held in facilities all over their state and they have friends who have been paroled. These relationships help to create healthy, compassionate, honest and loyal individuals and they lend support to each other. We, on the outside of prison walls, would see that as healthy and balanced. We would be encouraged by the fact that these persons are able to establish long term healthy relationships. That is not necessarily true in the eyes of prison administrators. They are ever watchful of "friends" that hang out together all the time because they may be "gang members" or they may be inciting trouble. Prison officials are wary of relationships that were formed on the inside of prison walls and continue after a person has been released. A person held in prison must learn to walk the line between relationship and trouble because of the view prison officials and guards have on relationships formed in prison.
Now it is completely understandable and quite true that prison officials have to combat gangs and gang violence everyday inside of their facilities. The current prison model itself actually promotes prison subcultures and even creates the environment for extreme control, abuses of power and violence. It is completely within reason that measures must be taken to try and prevent the rise of gang activity in prison facilities but how do you do that without destroying the reformative benefit of human relationship?
I think the only logical answer IS relationship. For far too long prison officials and guards have operated with the "us vs them" mentality. Guards are instructed to refrain from regular interaction with persons held in their facilities. These guards are to be the enforcers and ever mindful of those boundaries. That may maintain security but it keeps the guards and officials from properly assessing and contributing to the rehabilitation of the people in their charge.
It may be time to consider a different education model for guards and prison officials. Wouldn't it be original if all of them were trained conflict managers, counselors and educators? Wouldn't it be more beneficial to establish relationship with those in their charge so that they can be the instruments of reform in the lives of those they manage every day? How about getting to know the guys, talk to them, listen to them, watch them while assessing their needs/risks?
Then prison may well become the corrections facilities they should have been when they were created.
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