Few of us have visited the maximum-security prison at Tamms. On occasion, and rarely so, we read about the treatment inflicted upon our fellow human beings within those walls and are summoned to consider the incomprehensible that could not be committed without our tax money. Some of us have spoken out and worked to remedy the situation, often without success. Now hope is revived that the governor will take the initiative to close Tamms.
But because closing is framed as a budgetary measure, we may be distracted from deep issues that will persist regardless of the outcome. Tamms is a violation of human rights. But the human community is coming to embrace another human right—that is, the right to be gainfully employed.
Unfortunately the state budget crisis frames the closing in a way that pits principles against one another and thereby deflects from considering the multiple dimensions of human rights. Moreover, finances turn our attention from deep abiding concerns. First, is the question a matter of what we can afford? Or might the question turn on the purpose of prisons. Do we create prisons to rehabilitate people so that they can realize their God-given potential, even a portion of their potential? Or by creating places like Tamms that simply seek to lock away people do we let go that belief in the light of humanity that dwells within us all? Second, what about the guards? What does it mean for our fellow citizens to work in such environments? Third, what do we do to ourselves when we perpetuate, even if by proxy, such a culture of violence? Or what is the difference between paying taxes for violence overseas and for violence at home? Fourth, what kind of economy do we perpetuate by using our resources in ways that work such corrosive affects on prisoners and guards alike.
First, what does it mean to systematically put one of our fellow creatures into nearly absolute isolation so that they often go mad? Are these people also God’s creatures? Or do we by way of our proxies—courts and guards—read them out of the human community? Are we to abandon belief in the universal light? Once prisons were designed to restore people to society. Even the first advocates of absolute isolation believed they were leading inmates on the path to redemption. Today isolation is employed simply for the purpose of control and for what appears to be deep punitive urges.
Second, the people who work as guards are acting as our proxies by way of our tax dollars. We pay them to work in conditions that affect them as well. And thus I become concerned that we are responsible for what we pay them to do. I have taught in minimum and maximum security prisons and have found that the grimmer the environment the grimmer the guards. I have seen former students go to war overseas, return emotionally broken, and then sign on as guards. The pattern of violence against the self by way of substance abuse, family violence, and suicide that is found among military veterans is reproduced in guards.
Third, prisons are as isolated as military bases and both are built on cultures of violence. We have come to learn that our torturers overseas depend on isolation as a method to break down the individual, sometimes irretrievably. And now we learn that the same principles of isolation are applied to prisoners. As we come to see these connections and their implications, we enter the risky territory of complicity. Yes, this is complicity by proxy. Nonetheless, it remains complicity. What do we do to ourselves when we know and then abdicate responsibility? Is it just the prisoners or the guards who are harmed? Such knowing complicity carries responsibility.
Fourth, what kind of economy are we creating? As part of the human community, we are coming to recognize the right to gainful employment. But when employment includes jobs that violate another’s human rights, have we made a mockery of that ideal? What path do we find ourselves travelling when we compare employment by way of public works such as the Civilian Conservation Corps with employment by locking another person out of the human community? Is it possible that instead of pitting the interests of prisoners against the interests of the guards, we can realize that when we speak of the rights to jobs we mean the quality of work performed? As one economists asked, can we make an economy “as if people mattered”—for guards, for prisoners, and for all of us God’s creatures?
Whatever the outcome of this discussion over Tamms, this moment may teach us to look beyond the immediate budget sheets and toward a long-term process of reflection and creative thought. Can we allow our prisons to slip from sight without damage to ourselves? This path promises to be longer that the road to the governor’s office. Can we do otherwise than take a first step?
And so I support the closing of Tamms. And I realize that closing may not be enough.