Commentary & Opinion
3:51 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

Stephen Gottlieb: Should We Care About The Fate Of Prisoners?

 Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

A number of listeners have been raising that question in the wake of WAMC reports of lack of medical care in prisons, and my support for Cuomo’s position about educating prisoners.

Let’s assume that we don’t care about them at all. But we care about us. So what is the effect on us of what we do to them?

Actually the implications are huge. Let’s start with education. What that is trying to address is the likelihood that they, the prisoners, will get out and then commit more crimes on us – that they may rob, cheat, and steal from us. The evidence is that education makes that much less likely. That’s a matter of security – mine and yours.

Now if we talk about medical care, we can talk about them, but lots of people spend time in jail that we might think of as us. Some are kids who’ve taken the wrong path. Others are adults who are actually innocent – some of us as lawyers deal with the persistent presence of innocent people in prison. Many have made mistakes, including drunk driving, which will put them in prison but they will come out and at the very least their families keep hoping that they will emerge as good and healthy citizens.

Of course you’re thinking I am trying to identify people who are like us. Of course – I’m trying to get your ear as well as your heart. But some of us also care about what happens to other people’s communities, both because we care and because it’s also a matter of safety for us. The extent to which the criminal process has targeted minorities for behavior that it does not target whites, or punished them in ways we do not punish those we consider “ourselves” and made sure that minority males will not be able to put their lives back together, has become a national scandal. But before you shout that you don’t care about them, you’re talking about a piece of the vicious cycle that makes all of our lives less secure. As John Donne wrote but many don’t understand, “No man is an island.” We have to care because, as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

While we’re at it, I care about the protections we give defendants because that’s about deciding who is innocent and who is guilty, and who is how blameworthy and who isn’t. You may be less likely than some to be in the dock, but no one is immune. We all have to climb down from our assumptions of invincibility and realize that anything can also happen to us. That’s the fundamental principle of our legal system. Take that assumption away and we have the unpredictability of Putin’s Russia or Stalin’s.

But let’s take away that assumption that we only care about ourselves. As the great Rabbi Hillel said two millenia ago, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Not Jewish? Jesus’ ears were open and he had his own way of making the same point as I assume I need not tell you. If I don’t care about the ways we treat others, whether by denial of health care, refusal to rehabilitate, or willingness to torture, what kind of Americans am I helping to bring up? I shudder to think. Pogo was right.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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