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Grace and the Cycle of Abuse

2013 December 2
by Ian Welsh

Those to whom evil is done. Do evil in return

- W. H. Auden

Grace is the good we do not deserve.  A society without grace, a society without mercy, a society that knows only vengeance, is a horrid land of violence and fear.

The simple rule of evil is Auden’s, but it’s worse than his line implies: we don’t do evil to those who do evil to us.  Oh no, those who are abused, do evil to someone else, someone innocent, and so it goes.  The cycle of abuse lives in families, it lives in prisons, it lives in everyday life, it lives in nations, as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians attests.

A person or group who is hurt comes to believe that’s how one should act.  It’s weird, it’s counterintuitive (shouldn’t abuse make you want to be sure it never happens to anyone else), but the evidence is that it’s true.  Once hurt, once damaged, too many of us act out that hurt on other people.

Or, as the saying about child-rearing runs, children do what you do, not what you say. If you abuse them, they will abuse.  If you bully them, they will become bullies.

True of adults, too.

Justice requires that we punish those who hurt others except in defense of themselves or others.  But the nature of that punishment is key, it must be rehabilitative, not punitive.  This was understood well by by the prison reformers of previous generations, and in this as in much else, we have regressed from our humanity in the 60s and  70s.

A prison where people are raped, turns out rapists.  A prison where people are beaten, turns out people who resort easily to violence.  A prison where the only people who can protect you from rape and beatings are racist gangs, turns out racist gang-members.

Rape a rapist, or stand by and watch, effectively condoning it, and you become a rapist.  The problem with eye-for-an-eye punishment is that it perpetuates the cycle of abuse and it coarsens those who must do the punishing.

And so, in civilized nations (like Finland, not America) the punishment is understood simply: the loss of freedom.  Because the prisoner has proven they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, the right to make those decisions is taken away from them for a time.  During that time they should be treated well, treated better than they treated their victim, both because a society which rapes and murders is coarsened and because the cycle of abuse must be broken.

The recidivism rate in Finland is 1/2 that of the US rate.  Why?  Because their prisoners aren’t raped and beaten, that’s why.  Because they are treated kindly.

Grace is the kindness you don’t deserve.  Only grace, only kindness, can break the cycle of abuse.  To be sure, it doesn’t always work, but it works more often than violence does.

If you aren’t going to either lock someone up for the rest of their life (expensive) or kill them (and we make way too many mistakes to be killing people based on our court’s decisions), then you’d best treat prisoners well, because they’re coming out of the prison, and you want them to come out better people than they went in, not worse.

This also has to do with how we treat them once out.  The standard practice, now, of criminal background checks for every decent jobs, means that ex-cons can never actually have a good life outside prison.  Absent any opportunity in the legal economy, of course they go to the illegal economy: those are often the only people willing to hire them.  Once someone has done their time, they’ve paid their debt to society and save for a very few jobs, criminal record checks need to be illegal.

Treat people with both justice and grace, and you’ll have a far happier society.  This is true for affairs far beyond prison, mind you, but it is especially true for those who have committed crimes.  Justice without mercy is cruelty, and mercy without justice is unfair.

Grace: it’s the good we don’t deserve, and combined with justice, it’s how we should run our societies.

18 Responses
  1. December 2, 2013

    And again, Ian points out “what we do is not about them, it’s about us.” We should treat prisoners well not because it’s good for the prisoners, although of course it is, but because it makes for a better society. After 9/11, we should not torture because torturing is not who we are.

    America can never get past, “They are bad people, so it’s okay to torture them.”

  2. charles permalink
    December 2, 2013

    The background checks precluding felons from ever having the ability to support themselves brings to mind the counter intuitive, perverse new habit of credit checking potential employees. They want and need a job to pay down debts, but the debt keeps them unemployable. I am always at a loss as to how there isn’t a groundswell of support to end these practices.

  3. Dan H permalink
    December 2, 2013

    “The background checks precluding felons from ever having the ability to support themselves brings to mind the counter intuitive, perverse new habit of credit checking potential employees. They want and need a job to pay down debts, but the debt keeps them unemployable. I am always at a loss as to how there isn’t a groundswell of support to end these practices.”

    …because its just as Ian has pointed out, this vicious cycle perpetuates itself. Most people are not capable of “being the bigger man”, especially not after being wronged themselves. Bullys beget bullys and the snowball grows.

  4. S Brennan permalink
    December 2, 2013

    I am not going to win any popularity contest with this, but…there are really bad people out there…and then there are those that got a bad start, but can be saved

    I think treatment should be harsh. But harsh in an institutional regime, not cruelty meted out by guards or prisoners.

    Instead of a year of being a victim or victimizer, 60 days naked [one blanket] in a bare solitary cell, the only social contact, guard, Padre and warden. Minimal exercise, food and water. Every inmate suffers an equally harsh imprisonment and is returned to society in a structured work release.

    To those that we wish not to give up on:

    A shorter, harsher incarceration, leading to structured work-release program will deliver better results than long term imprisonment in a criminal environment.

  5. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 2, 2013

    The data does not show that that works, it shows that it increases recidivism. Solitary confinement does brain damage severe enough to show up on brain scans.

  6. EGrise permalink
    December 2, 2013

    When people bring up punishment, I’m often reminded of Ma Joad’s memory of bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd:

    “I knowed Purty Boy Floyd. I knowed his ma. They was good folks. He was full of hell, sure, like a good boy oughta be.” She paused and then her words poured out. “I don’ know all like this—but I know it. He done a little bad thing an’ they hurt ‘im, caught ‘im an’ hurt him so he was mad, an’ the nex’ bad thing he done was mad, an’ they hurt ‘im again. An’ purty soon he was mean-mad. They shot at him like a varmint, an’ he shot back, an’ then they run him like a coyote, an’ him a-snappin’ an’ a-snarlin’, mean as a lobo. An’ he was mad. He wasn’t no boy or no man no more, he was jus’ a walkin’ chunk a mean-mad. But the folks that knowed him didn’t hurt ‘im. He wasn’ mad at them. Finally they run him down an’ killed ‘im. No matter how they say it in the paper how he was bad—that’s how it was.”

    So it seems to me like we tried harsh punishment – in those days including whipping and sweatboxes and worse – and it didn’t work, so maybe time for something else?

  7. J. Palmer permalink
    December 2, 2013

    thank you Ian. I was just thinking today of how little kindness, caring, education in general we have now in our society. Even little things like holding doors open for people who cannot open them or smiling and saying hello. How cruel for example is The ACA (as people will find out soon) when single payer would be so much more humane and of course less expensive as well. And of course free higher education for all as it contributes to the common wealth instead we have massive student debt for universities that pay only administrators excessive salaries. and the list goes on. We all (all humanity) are losing healthy food, healthy environment, our world and all living beings. Tragedy unending. Appreciate your thoughts always.

  8. Kevin Hayden permalink
    December 2, 2013

    Ian’s right. A friend of mine worked his way through the prison system to assistant warden. Then he began designing prisons, more secure ones for one state. And he was very clear on the result of solitary confinement longer than 30 days. It breaks minds.

    It destroys mental health. Almost without exception. Anyone who doesn’t grasp that ALL prisons are scary, and all prisoners are already subject to terrible loneliness – because NO-ONE else can be fully trusted – won’t grasp that all imprisonment is harsh. With or without TVs, rec facilities or classrooms. Increasing the punitive actions or too much isolation breaks men, reduces them to entities that growl and attack without provocation. And then releases them into society.

    It doesn’t rehabilitate, it damages the prisoner and endangers society. Even setting aside the ethical arguments, it’s so ineffective, it’s just plain stupid.

  9. December 2, 2013

    charles:

    The background checks precluding felons from ever having the ability to support themselves brings to mind the counter intuitive, perverse new habit of credit checking potential employees. They want and need a job to pay down debts, but the debt keeps them unemployable. I am always at a loss as to how there isn’t a groundswell of support to end these practices.

    Yes, and it also brings to mind these efforts to subject recipients of food & welfare assistance to preemptive drug tests. Another misfire of righteousness: If people can’t get food – people already on the fringes because of stone-age drug policies – I guess it’s OK with all of you (not you here in this thread, of course) that they hit the underground with the unemployable convicts and I guess those new recruits from any that can’t manage their debt and do some crime…

    And great post once again, Ian. Shared.

  10. Mary McCurnin permalink
    December 2, 2013

    American culture is a path that starts and ends with violence.

  11. Stormcrow permalink
    December 2, 2013

    I use a metaphor for this “cycle” that’s a bit different, but it pushes my thinking in directions I find useful.

    I consider it a transmissible mental disease.

    I come from a family where it was handed down generations and across marriages, like it was a family curse out of a gothic horror story. I had to sever relations with every last member of that family, for the protection of my own mental health and my sanity.

    The default to sadism in this country pushed that disease from “endemic” to “pandemic” decades ago. Now, it’s everywhere you look. Like TB in the mid-19′th century, or smallpox before Jennerian vaccination.

  12. Mary McCurnin permalink
    December 3, 2013

    Put simply, scum rises to the top.

  13. Jeff W permalink
    December 3, 2013

    American culture is a path that starts and ends with violence.

    In a somewhat different context, Bill Moyers last week quoted Henry Giroux’s Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism and also in this piece]: “The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current…”

  14. December 4, 2013

    S Brennan writes:

    “Instead of a year of being a victim or victimizer, 60 days naked [one blanket] in a bare solitary cell, the only social contact, guard, Padre and warden. Minimal exercise, food and water. Every inmate suffers an equally harsh imprisonment and is returned to society in a structured work release.”

    WTF??

    That’s precisely the kind of sadism and cruelty Ian’s talking about.

    Otherwise, thank you Ian, beautiful post. When I was a teenager and young adult, I wanted to study criminology, specifically penal reform. I did some volunteer work in prisons. But then I realized that if I chose that as a career, I’d spend the rest of my life banging my head against a wall. And I just couldn’t face it. This country doesn’t have the political will to change its system of injustice. Thank god for efforts such as The Innocence Project. But we need thousands of Innocence Projects.

  15. Dan H permalink
    December 8, 2013

    I just watched Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners”…excellent dramatic depiction of the cycle of abuse.

  16. markfromireland permalink
    December 11, 2013

    @ S Brennan December 2, 2013

    When you scratch an American ‘liberal’/'progressive’/'socialist’ you quickly find the snarling and vicious authoritarian underneath. Thank you for giving such a brilliantly clear example of why I despise people like you root and branch.

    mfi

  17. markfromireland permalink
    December 11, 2013

    Ian did you know that the Swedish prison system and it’s ‘liberal regime’ has been so successful and by successful I mean that recidivism rates have plummeted that the Swedes are in the process of closing down several prisons?

    And I just can’t resist: What to do what to do – Scandinavia and the World

    Enjoy :-) as I say in another context.

    mfi

  18. markfromireland permalink
    December 11, 2013

    And the cycle of abuse is easily broken. All of my adopted children are from horrific backgrounds and themselves behaved horrifically to the point where nobody else would take them on. Being treated fairly mixed with love broke that cycle.

    When I met them I explained to then my upbringing regimen:

    Do not instigate violence – I will teach you how to inflict so much pain and humiliation on anyone who attacks you that word will quickly spread and nobody will dare attack you.

    If something was not given to you freely then it is not yours and I will under no circumstances tolerate theft.

    Always tell me the truth – if you lie to me, that is a form of violence, and a form that destroys trust.

    Rudeness either to me or to others isn’t acceptable to me.

    Other than that this is your home and a sensible basic starting point for you is that if something isn’t specifically forbidden then it’s permitted.

    This is your home and I am now your father. ‘Home’ means that you are entitled to be treated well – the love* will follow as we grow to know one another.

    It seems to have worked fairly well – they’re all now adults, very varied lives and levels of material ‘success’ but all of them are people that any parent would be proud to acknowledge as their kids. Interestingly those of them that are parents have all adopted my regimen above for their own children. Cycles of love can be repeated just as easily as cycles of abuse.

    mfi

    * In my experience you get to love them in the same way you love your own kids very quickly indeed.

    mfi

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