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.
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."