Thursday, 29 September 2011

To understand a country, you must look at its prisons

Pencil sharpener crafted by a prisoner and sold in the Fuchu Prison shop.
Yes, you must look at its prisons. Do not look at how it behaves to those it considers 'normal'. Look at its treatment of those over whom it has the most power, those it considers inferior; those at its mercy, concealed from the public eye. Only then can you learn of a country's ethics.

Today I had the chance to attempt just that, on a visit to Fuchu Prison in Tokyo. So first and foremost I would like to thank the Warden and his team for providing the presentation, tour, and direct and thoughtful answers to challenging questions, and the UN University for organizing and leading the excursion.

But first, some context about where I'm coming from, with the obligatory tirade against a particuarly nasty vein of humanity's corruption.

Prisons, in most societies and times, have been effectively a bin for society to stash people it doesn't like. Justice rarely enters into it. Prisons, and punishment in general, are in practice less about justice to the punished, and more about the bloodlust and vengeful impulses of the punishers. The punishment fetish has afflicted virtually every society, as in Britain, where it often appears that society knows no other response to problems. But rarely does punishment fix problems; and when it does, it does so dishonourably.

Ethics is not a euphemism for fear. If a person's sense of right and wrong means no more than obeying commands out of fear of punishment, that is not ethics of all: and the person is less a human than an automaton. Obedience is one of the most terrible inventions of our kind. Human beings, born of Earth and Sun, capable of love and reason, are meant to be free. Ethics must come from within. When ethics are absent, when a person commits unspeakable crimes such as murder or (worse) rape – when they thus break the universe – they too have been broken as humans.

This is not to condone one ounce of what they do; not in the slightest. Of the vilest crimes of which we are capable, some I have experienced, and some I know others who did. The heinous consequences of human callousness are well known to me, have indeed so impacted my journey that I have shaken hands with Death. So too has rage driven me to wish the harshest repercussions for those responsible for such crimes. But rage and justice are separate. When it comes to justice, it is not about what the criminals are; it is about what we are.

What kind of humanity do we want to be? One that can think, reflect, get back up when kicked down, and improve the strength of love in the world? Or one of hysterical fanaticism, and an addiction to drinking of one another's blood? Shall we systematically lash out in reprisal at violations, until by neglecting what generates them, they overwhelm us and finish our world? Or do we have it within us to let our rage run its course – not to suppress it, for to feel it is not itself wrong – but to let it subside, and then, and only then, think more coolly about what the heck went so wrong that human beings came to violate their bond to their fellow humans, or to the world from which they came? Our responses to problems define what we are.

Why do societies punish? Why do they raise vengeful retribution into institutionalized "justice"? Because they wish it established that the Corruption is entirely within the criminals themselves; because they lack the humility to reflect on their own faults, to assess what about their order is breaking people and turning them into criminals; because to ignore that makes them feel better about themselves.

Why do societes rehabilitate or seek to restore? Because that is when they realize, these criminals are or were human beings too; that whatever has happened to them, their humanity might yet be repaired, as the only way to end their threat to society and the threat of society's faults to its people in future; that directly repairing damage to crime victims is an utmost priority; and that yes, society does have a share of responsibility to make the world as fair and inclusive and tolerant to members and outsiders alike so as not to break or ruin their humanity; that it must do its part regardless of the criminals' own share of the responsibility; and that in doing all of these things, we may better expose and understand the Corruption and advance towards its defeat.

I have grave grievances at the Biblical god – that's another story, and a long one – but I do believe that fellow called Jesus was just possibly onto something when he suggested only the ones without sin cast the first stones. To humanity on Earth in 2011, I say: drop the stones and, for goodness' sake, look in a mirror.

And from the point of view of a World of Warcraft raider, with the likes of M'uru or Alysrazor in mind, I say: humanity is a team. Whatever other peoples' roles are, however unpardonably you are sure they are failing – focus on doing your best at your own task, not other people's, and make your own maximum contribution to the cumulative good. (That applies to countries bickering over whose fault anthropogenic climate change is, too.)

Prisons are tools. A tool is rarely ethically charged in itself; how good or bad it is depends on how we use it. A hammer may hit nails to build a good bridge, or crack someone's skull. The tool of prison might be, and is, devoted to either direction, or some confusion of both. In our world, some prisoners are so immediately dangerous that society must be protected from them. In our world, some prisoners are not criminals, but political prisoners, victims of bigotry, or people who ought to be not in prisons but hospitals. Properly applied, the tool of prison is a complex toolbox, in a much larger toolbox by which society fixes the causes and consequences of its problems, not breaks them further.

When it restores and rehabilitates, society is bettered: those causes and consequences are reduced. When it punishes for its own sake, drawing up more and more causes and consequences alike, society lurches blindly for the precipice, laughing maniacally at its infinite rightness all the way. Prisons are thus a barometer not only of society's ethics, but society's sustainability.

I entered Fuchu Prison with an open mind – I had never visited a prison before, and knew nothing of what to expect. Most of its inmates are "Class B" criminals, with 'advanced criminal tendencies', and many are re-offenders. I should admit straight away that the fact the staff were willing to give people a tour of their prison at all – to foreigners, no less – is much to their credit. One fears most societies prefer to keep the curtains over their prisons firmly drawn.

In truth, I felt they did alright. In relative terms, it far exceeds the thought and ethics that goes into prisons in most countries in the world. On balance, I perceived things it appears to do well on, things that gave me concern, and things on which I cannot be sure without more information.

Of course, this was a tour – a managed event. How accurate a reflection of prison life was what we were shown? I have no way to answer this, and so cannot assume in either direction; can only keep this in mind throughout these reflections.

A presentation laid out the prison's history, facilities, organization, treatment of prisoners and their daily schedule, and current inmate composition. If these are as good as their word, they are impressive. Routines and conditions are strict, but they purport a massive emphasis on rehabilitation, aiming to better motivate and develop the inmates to that end 'by appealing to prisoners' self-awareness, considering individual traits and circumstances'. The prisoners work most of the day on a range of endeavours, such as sewing, printing or compound upkeep, and are paid so as to improve their motivation to work, to learn that so contributing reaps them rewards, and perhaps to send these monies to help support dependents outside.

The rehabilitation programmes for the inmates are diverse, focusing on such things as building their empathy for their victims, providing personal guidance, and problem-specific programmes to free them from gangs, alcoholism, drug abuse or so on. So too do they receive academic instruction, hopefully making up for where formal education might have failed them. And again if they are as good as their word, inmates are comprehensively provided for in basic needs and rights such as diet, exercise, psychological support, medical facilities, freedom of religion, and need-based support before and after release – that is, basic things no person would honourably seek to deprive from even their worst enemies, regardless of whether at times one wants to. (And again – I do not assert this lightly.)

There was, in fact, little mention of punishment at all. They spoke of reprimands and penalties, certainly, including for questionable things like an inmate looking up at our tour group as we passed; but nowhere of punishment as an end in itself. This, if accurate, is commendable.

Speaking in absolute terms, a few things concerned me. Most alarming was the proportion of prisoners with mental difficulties or disabilities – around half of the total three thousand-some. A similar proprtion – and I don't know how far they coincide – have drug abuse problems, and many inmates too are gang members. I must wonder if a prison is the right place for the mentally struggling at all; but when I asked, they asserted that support is provided in accordance with the individual needs of inmates, who are kept constantly assessed, and that there are four psychologists on hand to assist with this. I have no way to further evaluate this situation, so I hope they know what they're doing.

This is also a male-only prison; females are incarcerated elsewhere. I won't go too far into this now, as gender in this context is a massive and challenging area in itself; I only hope that through such things as visits from family and friends, the natural right that males and females may associate voluntarily together is not undermined to a psychologically damaging extent. On a lesser note, I was somewhat discomforted by a degree of genderedness in the processing of our visitor group: such as the strict dress codes (mandatory dresses for women), slight segregation during entry, and gendered group formation during the tour. I can appreciate where they were coming from for some of this, and will admit – at least for now – that humanity's gender paradigms and the differential arrangment of males and females gets at my sensitivities far more than it seems to for most; but that is a discussion for another time.

The inmates' cells were small considering the number of people sharing some of them, although we were told that prisoners who really wished for a cell to themselves could get one, if they were prepared to forego some TV time. My main concern was the non-partitioned position of the toilet right next to the bed and desk in some cells, and the hygiene implications, but there can be little doubt that these are far more humane conditions than in the prisons of most countries.

What was most marvellous to see was the connection of cause and consequence between the prison and the outside world. The inmates do not work for the sake of being forced to work; rather their products and crafts are put to use for the public good, such as notebooks or supermarket stickers, and at the end of the tour we were shown the shop where such products were on open sale, along with those of inmates from other prisons. Some were crafted with striking artistry or dedication, including big pieces of furniture; this way the inmates can begin to put back what they might have taken from society, and through the revenues raised thereby, the prison can become a self-sustaining institution, less dependent on taxpayers.

Some of these pieces were poignant, especially those displaying animals. I bought the two-owls pencil sharpener above, because I wanted to support this activity. I do not know what inmate in which prison produced it, but it is cute. So were these animals carved by the hand of a monster, one who has killed or raped? Or perhaps an innocent person, wrongly convicted? The answer is most likely somewhere in between; but the bottom line is that this is both art and a practical tool, both being constants at the core of human identity since the earliest chapters of our ancient tale. Whatever humanity might be lost from the heart of its maker – however remorselessly, even righteously, our hatred might be detonated forth by harms that person might have wrought – these owls bear the message that humanity, at least some humanity, remains or was recovered in that person's heart. The hope, that in the proper conditions, by nurturing humanity by example rather than drowning its remnants in punitive bile, the Corruption can be driven back. In time, those who once were Corruption incarnate may become our most valuable assets in overcoming the Corruption once and for all. Those who have fallen into the abyss and been pulled back out, might better know its topography for when we invade it.

There is of course much more to consider, but I have ranted on long enough, so will keep it short. Some final points:
-A chance to speak with some inmates, and privately, would have hugely improved the reliability of this experience. I would like to recommend this as something Fuchu Prison might consider for future tours.
-There was no way to assess whether most or all of the inmates were guilty of crimes; important considering humanity's brazen misuse of "justice" systems through past and present. But this is not so much in the prison's remit as that of the police-and-courts process surrounding it: something just as important (in assessing a society's ethics) as the prisons themselves.
-There were some interesting discussions about how a staff six times outnumbered by prisoners was able to keep control with no weapons beyond whistles, alarms and handcuffs. The most potent answer the Warden gave emphasized the importance placed on building trust between the inmates and wardens; which would make sense, as trust is a far more effective regulator than fear. Is there a Japanese cultural aspect too? Would this work in other countries? Who knows its full dimensions, but it was intriguing nonetheless.
-And to those who considered that the prisoners might have it better than those outside in society, and half-jokingly asked if there were any free places, I say this: that if that is the case, that is a reflection not on the prison, but on society. We have everything we need in this world to guarantee the rights of everyone in it: let's get busy and do it, and not think for a moment that we should take it out on easy targets at our mercy.

These are my impressions, as one human being. I may be right or wrong; my perspectives are as subjective as anyone's. Those of you also on this visit no doubt have your own impressions, and through their diversity, humanity's journey continues. We all have our choices to make; so I would like to finish with two quotes, from both sides of the prison bars.

The first comes from an inmate, not at Fuchu, but a prison in Hong Kong my mother visited on an official tour quite some years ago. A prisoner asked them: "Have you come to see the animals?"

And the other comes from the Warden of Fuchu Prison, our host this day, in answer (if I correctly recall) to a question on reoffenders being sent to the prison multiple times. His exact words were in Japanese – in which I have yet to achieve competence – but their effect was that rehabilitating these criminals, and preventing them from becoming criminals in the first place, is society's responsibility too; prison alone cannot do it.

To that, what will our choices be?

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