A Father’s Day Reflection on Separation

A Father’s Day Reflection on Separation

April 16, 2012 | Susan Marchionna

From its early days, one of NCCD’s core values was the belief that with adequate support, probationers and parolees could lead lives apart from crime. This notion was expressed in an essay (circa 1923), by the first NCCD president, Charles Chute, entitled, Rational Crime Treatment. In this essay (admittedly somewhat paternalistically) Chute touts probation as a modern scientific method, the probationer being under the “watchful eye” of the officer—a helpmate trained to be a skilled social worker with a personal stake in the well being of the probationer.

From its early days, one of NCCD’s core values was the belief that with adequate support, probationers and parolees could lead lives apart from crime. This notion was expressed in an essay (circa 1923), by the first NCCD president, Charles Chute, entitled, Rational Crime Treatment. In this essay (admittedly somewhat paternalistically) Chute touts probation as a modern scientific method, the probationer being under the “watchful eye” of the officer—a helpmate trained to be a skilled social worker with a personal stake in the well being of the probationer. Chute was also unequivocal in his decrying of prisons as travesties and failures. Almost a century later, it is hard to dispute the basic tenets of Chute’s arguments.

In just this week’s news, although we may think of this as a thing of the “barbaric past,” the state of Utah executed Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad, prompting yet another discussion about the preferred method of capital punishment. We seem to periodically search our souls to decide the most humane way to kill someone.

Short of execution, the next most extreme method of correctional control is the supermax prison and extreme isolation. Though data are tightly restricted, the most common estimates are that there are roughly 20,000 prisoners in these facilities. About 40 states now have a version of the supermax. Prisoners are isolated from even the most basic human contact. They are removed to isolation from the general prison population often for highly discretionary decisions on the part of administrators, with virtually no due process, and may stay for many years in conditions that could crack most of us in a matter of months. In a common scenario, remotely controlled doors release the prisoner from his 8 x 10 foot sterile bunker for his hour of exercise in the “dog run”; meals are delivered and retracted through a slot in the solid door. Mental health services are scarce for the isolated prisoner; those that develop mental illness in such conditions are assessed as “not adjusting well.” And in some states, a significant number of prisoners are released directly from extreme isolation to the community.

And yet, in Angola prison, the Louisiana facility infamous for its hardened and violent prisoners (the average sentence in Angola is 93 years), a path to transformation seems to lie in the exact opposite strategy—encouraging intimate contact between men and their children. In the Malachi Fathers program, prison fathers earn the chance to renew themselves as parents—and in the process, possibly discover the keys to healing their family relationships, no matter when they might be released from prison. Angola Warden Burl Cain supports the year-long training session that prepares fathers to reunite with their children, opening up the possibility of a fundamental kind of redemption.

It has been well established that the 1.7 million children of incarcerated parents in the US are many times more likely than other children to end up in prison too. In the linked USA Today article, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-06-17-prison-dads_N.htm, Angola fathers have taken steps to divert the future course of their families away from prison by getting closer to them, not more isolated from them.

Chute’s views may seem quaint or naïve by today’s measures. On the other hand, maybe what was true in his day is still every bit as true right now.