Thursday, November 1, 2012

The real lesson from Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith's death and more the videos of her being brutalized while in custody have led to much handwringing among the chattering classes. The theme seems to be that people with mental problems are treated badly in jail. 

Well duh. 

But stepping back a moment, there isn't a lot of evidence that Ms Smith even had mental problems. Yes she did get into some minor criminal problems and she had trouble with authority - but that's hardly rare among teens. And yes she took steps that led to her death; but seeing her circumstances those steps do not reflect metal confusion but rather an adaptive sanity which sadly was not as adaptive as she might have hoped.

I do not say this to minimize the plight of the mentally ill in prison; my point rather is that the abuse of Ms Smith was not a result of her being 'crazy'. She was abused because she was difficult and had been made into a non-person. And once you start treating someone as a non-person they become a non-person. 

The system Ms Smith was in, the system we have, does not view youth in trouble as people like us who need love and care and guidance. No, the system sees youth in trouble as commodities to be packaged and dealt with. Such youth are not people and need not be treated as such. 

A fact that took me a long time to appreciate is that some Nazis, even those who were in the Einsatzgruppen, were caring, loving family people.   Some slave holders in the antebellum South  were legitimate defenders of aboriginal rights and were horrified by the slaughter of First Nations. And yet the Nazis and the slave holders were morally blind to the evils they wrought. 

They did not see their victims as people. They saw them as things -- and that dehumanization happens in prison all the time. 

It is easy to slip into a dehumanization pattern. Cage another person and either you have to accept you are treating a brother or sister in a way you would hate or you can forget the person in the cage is a person. It's easier to forget and to treat the person as a thing. 

But do we need to cage people at all? Yes, some must be segregated from society as dangerous (hardly Ms Smith but some do need to be separated). But even those need not be shackled as slaves. 

We must change our system so that prisoners are treated as people. They must be dealt with as humans. The first step is to make sure they are treated with respect. C S Lewis made the point that emotions follow actions and good actions lead to good emotions. And then the good emotions reinforce the good actions. He said:

"Do not waste time bothering whether you "love" your neighbor; act as if you did.As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him."


Anonymous said...

Yes, seeing a bit of the videos, I was reminded of the Zimbardo / Stanford Prison Experiment

Anonymous said...

That prison guards sometimes abuse inmates is old news. Nobody in the system cares. At least not enough speak out. Only when links to videos graphically depicting the abuses are placed on the front pages of major newspapers do the punishment industry's stakeholders engage in their obligatory hand-wringing (and but-covering). That said - it would be interesting - even illuminating - to hear more about the specific involvement of doctors (below) and their contribution to this travesty.
Broadening the inquest’s scope moves the inquest into the territory of “political crusade,” said lawyer Mark Freiman, representing doctors Carolyn Rogers, Loys Ligate, Sam Swaminath and three other out-of-province physicians who are not named.
Toronto Star
Ashley Smith: Graphic video shows teen duct-taped while being transported
Published on Wednesday October 31, 2012

The Rat said...

I wonder, though, what causes people to dehumanize others. Comparing guards to Nazis and slave owners id grossly unfair. These guards are simply people, too, and put in a situation where they have to deal with extremely - and I mean EXTREMELY - difficult people. They have invented spit hoods because the prisoners spit, and the RCMP officer was afraid of being bitten almost assuredly because he had been bitten. When you are making a modest income and your job is dealing with these abusive individuals, and you are expected to take the abuse because prisoners face few consequences for bad behaviour, how long will it take before you really begin to hate the people you deal with? Fear and hatred lead to dehumanization. Can you really blame the guards or the police for feeling the way they do given the abuse they are forced to deal with? How often can you be splattered with urine and feces, or face an inmate with an potentially AIDS infected needle without changing inside? The turnover among guards is high so the questions might be "what kind of individual stays?" If the good people leave in the face of the abuse and the bad ones stay what do we really expect will happen?

Prisoner advocates have done a great job making prison a better place for inmates but who is advocating for the guards? Where are the videos of the abuse guards deal with daily? We never see that, do we?

My brother is in the RCMP and he told me once that new officers come in with ideals and desire to help but they are quickly disabused of that notion. The people who would appreciate their help don't need it and the ones who do need it don't want it and will violently work against anyone trying to help. This is the way it really works and no amount of Pollyanna-thinking will change that. We need to work within the realities of the situation and not the ideals the wannabe-helpers at the Elizabeth Fry society would project on it.