Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Locked up on Liberty Street

As we choose our candidate for County Sheriff this fall, we need to remember that one of their major responsibilities is the operation of the local Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.

Located on 25 South Liberty Street, the HRRJ remains beyond overcrowded with some 300 men and women inmates, and is efficiently managed by a dedicated and overworked staff. But like most institutions of its kind, there are plenty of problems to be addressed. How can an experience behind bars best rehabilitate offenders?

In parenting classes I stress the importance of time-outs as a good consequence for misbehaving children. Perhaps incarceration can be thought of as a humane kind of “time out” for misbehaving adults, certainly preferable to public stocks, floggings and other past forms of torture and humiliation.

But as with any good consequences, a first word to keep in mind is Reasonable. The most effective punishment is not necessarily the longest or harshest. This is an issue for which courts are responsible rather than the sheriff, of course, but we should all be asking, If a three month sentence is good for a given offender, is a year in the same steel cage really four times more effective? The law of diminishing returns sets in at a point where the resentment an offender feels outweighs the learning value of the punishment.

I am not in favor of pampering prisoners, but one might also question the reasonableness of charging local inmates $1 an ounce for coffee, 75¢ for a styrofoam coffee cup, and 10¢ for a plastic stirring spoon. Maybe offenders should be glad for any coffee, period, no matter how expensive. But it’s usually innocent family members who have to pick up the tab. Our jail is among the few in the state that charges $1 a day for a room and board fee as permitted by Virginia law. Until at least half of that is paid in a given month, inmates can’t purchase a single canteen item, not even a pricey 11¢ packet of ketchup for a hamburger. This results in families either having to pay a $365 annual levy, plus cash for the steeply priced canteen items, or having their inmates doing without things as basic as deodorant. Is that reasonable?

A second word associated with good consequences is Respectful. To humiliate either a disobedient child or a lawbreaking adult is not a good way to get positive results. At our local jail, simple respect might mean not requiring inmates to be in handcuffs and wearing blaze orange prison suits when brought into the visitor booth--a small room with no escape exit and where inmates and guests are separated by a wall of solid concrete, steel and glass. Even state penitentiaries don’t impose this kind of indignity.

A third R of good consequences is Restorative. Any corrections facility should seek to rehabilitate and correct rather than simply punish, and should see to it that offenders make full restitution for their wrongs. This means more provisions being made for nonviolent prisoners to be under house arrest, in jail work-release programs, or on well supervised parole or probation (and regularly undergoing drug testing) while being required to work to support themselves and their families and otherwise pay off their debt to society. Otherwise it is you and I as taxpayers who get to pay for their crimes.

The latter, of course, is another matter over which a sheriff has little direct control, but his or her willingness to provide the necessary supervision for such programs is critical. But in the end, it is up to all of us citizens to help make our system of correction more reasonable, respectful and restorative.

Which, by the way, is an approach that could also save us taxpayers a bundle.

What do you think?
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