Random Thoughts on a Rainy Sunday


            I am in the middle of a book chapter on delinquency and juvenile justice and the chapter is about juvenile institutions.  It is also about punishment and how we love our “edifices.”  In fact, I have a name for our seeming obsession with such edifices: “the edifice complex.”  While at lunch today with a friend the television was tuned into a Fox station and the popular “Cops” show.  As usual there was a scene where a black man (who else!) was lying on the ground and some burly cop had a gun aimed at him yelling some orders, like “don’t move” – who would want to move with a gun aimed at you?

            Happily we had just finished our lunch and so did not have to be bored with this program any longer.  I commented to my friend about all the stereotypes displayed on this kind of show and the erroneous impression given that the “police always get their man.”  A show like this also reinforces the “might makes right” mentality so dominant in our culture.  In fact, such a mentality sort of “trickles down” (to borrow that idiotic economic concept) from the very top of American society.  To illustrate, as I am writing these words on a rare rainy day in Las Vegas (November 7, 2004) the U. S. military machine is planning a huge assault on Fallouja as the situation in Iraq has resulted in the declaration of a “state of emergency” in that beleaguered country.

            We continue doing things this way – punishment – and things don’t improve very much.  Those we punish the most come from families and neighborhoods where all they knew growing up was punishment in some form – from their parents, siblings, neighbors, relatives and local gangs.  Of course, the local police stepped in to add their own two cents worth, just like the burly cop in “Cops” was doing.  These things continue for a reason and that reason, it seems to me, is that we Americans love it.  Yes, we love seeing somebody get the shit kicked out of him, we love seeing brutal cops breaking all the rules in order to “get their man,” we plunk down billions of dollars a year to watch it on the movie screen (it seems every other movie contains multiple scenes of violence, more often than not committed by our “action heroes”).  We also love wars.  We must, for how else can you explain our silence as the Pentagon budget goes through the roof (more than $400 billion this fiscal year, the highest ever) and we are practically bankrupting the national treasury with expenditures on the war in Iraq and the “war on terrorism,” not to mention the “war on drugs” and the “war on gangs” and the “war on crime” in general.  Why do we have to always declare a “war” on something?

            We used to have a “War Department” but I guess this was way too obvious and so we changed it to the “Defense Department.”  George Orwell would like that name.  We even have “war colleges” and textbooks on the “art of war.”  (One recently written by former presidential candidate Wesley Clark.)  Why don’t we have a Department of Peace or “Peace Colleges” and why are people who are against war often derisively labeled “peaceniks” or worse?  And why are those who protest the war in various ways subject to investigations by the police and the FBI?  No one ever investigates those who start the wars, do they?

            The sociologist in me (after all, I do have a doctorate in sociology) always tries to see the problem in a larger context, as suggested so many years ago by C. Wright Mills.  His “sociological imagination” I have taken to heart, trying to see connections between “history and biography” and to differentiate between “private troubles and public issues of social structure.”  So writing a chapter about how juvenile offenders are punished naturally causes me to look at the “big picture” in order to see things more clearly.  This way I see the connection between what is going on in Iraq and what occurs within our punitive institutions like “juvenile correctional institutions” – another Orwellian phrase. 

Just today I was researching what are normally called “reception and diagnostic centers.”  These are places where kids are on their way to these “correctional institutions” in order to get classified, studied, tested, etc.  Some are quite humane and kids get treated with some respect.  But some are about as punitive as adult prisons, though in a more subtle way. 

One example I came across is in Oklahoma.  On their web site they describe one such place (called the “Reception and Orientation Center” or ROC). This “center” (a photo is included and it looks like a prison) is described as a place where “residents” (as they are called, rather than “prisoners” or “inmates”) are first admitted to the Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center.  Here the initial response by the staff “is to gain control of the resident's behavior.”  They do this by having the “residents” first “learn to memorize eighteen rules of appropriate behavior and how they apply to the crimes they've committed” before being sent here.  While they are in the ROC, “their behavior is strictly and closely monitored.”  Continuing, the web site states that: “These residents learn compliance. For instance, a resident is only allowed to speak by raising his/her hand, being acknowledged by staff and given permission. All new residents begin their stay at the Southwest Oklahoma juvenile Center on the ROC unit. This allows staff to gain control of the residents’ behavior at the beginning of his/her treatment, which results in a smoother cognitive behavioral pattern after he/she leaves this unit. On ROC, residents not only ask permission to speak, but also to enter and exit certain areas. They have no television or radios on this unit, have school on the unit, eat on the unit, and get off the unit only one hour a day for outside recreation.” 

The military model of discipline is readily apparent.  Whether or not this results in success upon release has not been demonstrated, given the high rates of recidivism among graduates of such institutions.  Kids in these institutions – like working class kids in general – need to be taught to obey above all else.  No independent thinking is allowed, no questioning of authority.  Just plain obedience.  If you get out of line, additional punishment awaits you.

I suppose the failure of this approach doesn’t bother too many people.  As I have often said, nothing succeeds like failure.  It apparently doesn’t matter to most Americans that our crime rate is higher today than it was in 1968, when all this “law and order” stuff got started, or that the rate of violence is 66% higher today, all in spite of about a 2000% increase in criminal justice expenditures, the building of more than 100 new prisons and a corresponding 500% increase in our incarceration rate.  All of this in spite of more cops on the streets than ever before, more sophisticated technology at our disposal (to control and punish better), more courts, more lawyers, more parole and probation officers, and more students taking “criminal justice” courses in colleges and universities.  Failure succeeds in part because it is so profitable to American business and to careers of civil servants who enforce the laws and turn the keys in our prisons. 

I wish I had an answer to this madness but I don’t.  The only thing I suggest we do for starters is to simply open our eyes.