In addition to being perpetrators, many prisoners have been themselves victims of injustices. A lawyer once told me that “95 percent of incarcerated people would be free if they had the money to pay for a proper defense.” In addition to institutionalized racism, poverty, inferior schools and medical care, injustice in our country is often a decisive factor in who goes to prison and who runs free in spite of their misdeeds.
The majority of the prisoners I taught were black, brown or immigrants, along with a smattering of the white poor. Occasionally, there were a few, whom a prisoner named Raheem referred to as “dolphins caught in a tuna net,” white, middle- or upper-class people with financial means.
These were the exceptions.
Depending on what is politically expedient and popular thinking at the moment, attitudes toward leniency vary from year to year, administration to administration. Caught in this dichotomy is the controversy over whether and when inmates should receive the Covid-19 vaccination before other designated groups in the general population.
This issue is of concern to criminal-justice advocates who, since the pandemic, have called for the early release of older inmates to halt the spread of the virus in prison facilities.
Cogent points regarding punishment and mercy were recently addressed in this paper, where I profiled an elderly gentleman who was released due to Covid, and the subject of a letter to the editor January 6 asking about compassion and consideration for the victims also.
The question concerning prisoner’s rights to vaccinations is one of medical ethics. Who has the right to decide whose life is more valuable and deserves to be saved? Should a person who committed terrible acts of violence be prioritized before a taxpaying law-abiding citizen? What also of the people in prison, and there are many, who should not have been imprisoned at all? If it was up to you to choose, what would you do?
I put this question to a former prison administrator who leaned less toward punishment and more toward mercy. She herself will not receive the vaccine until the third wave of eligibility.
She holds the opinion that prisoners should receive the vaccine before she does.
She offered this explanation, “Out here I have the freedom to choose to social distance’ she said. “They do not. I have the freedom to wear a mask and the ability to purchase one as needed. They may not. I can politely request someone in my immediate vicinity, even a superior, to move back, put on a mask. They cannot. I can walk away from a non-compliant individual. They cannot.”
Punishments are decided by a court of law. Extra penalties can be given out based on the judgment that the perpetrator does not deserve medical care, or that they are society’s evildoers, though such measures are illegal.
Health authorities have prioritized vaccine availability to people who live in congregant settings; where a number of people reside, meet or gather in close proximately for an extended period of time. There’s nothing that says only “good” people in such settings should be vaccinated.
The elderly gentleman I recently profiled had been to dozens of parole hearings over the past half-century at which the descendants of his victims protested his release. He did not gain his freedom, and never would have. He was pushed into the street at 74 years old to a homeless shelter with no medical care. It’s likely all his relatives are by now dead and gone. Was this mercy or expediency, who knows?
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
How are we doing? We are not Norway; home of the most civilized prison system in the world. Thankfully, we are not Venezuela, the home of the worst prisons in the world. We are somewhere in between those two.
From my 20 years and hundreds of hours teaching inmates, I have learned there are deserving “good” people in prison, and people who are awful.. Just like out here.