6/19/09 - the monster factory

In today's excerpt - veteran prison counselor Sunny Schwartz embarks on the task of bringing a highly innovative program called 'restorative justice' to the San Francisco County Prison system. Like most prisons these prisons—which house prisoners with records fairly typical of jails throughout the country—are commonly referred to by guards and others associated with them as 'monster factories'. The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate:

"I had to make good on the promise of [introducing] constructive programs, and my first big push went to getting a school in the jail. I discovered that our neighbor to the north, just behind the razor-wire fence and a stand of trees, was Skyline Community College. I gave them the hard sell, told them our population needed their classes more than anyone else, and they'd said they would try. ... One of the first things the college did was help us perform a survey of our population's needs so I would know what kind of programs I should start:

"75 percent [of the prisoners] were reading somewhere between the fourth-and sixth-grade levels.  90 percent never had a legal job. 90 percent were self-identified addicts. 80 percent were self-identified victims of sexual or physical violence as a child. 65 percent had been placed in a special-education class at some point. 75 percent were high school dropouts.

"It was dismal. If there was ever a set of numbers that spoke more plainly to the need for some alternative to warehousing people, I hadn't seen it. Even I was surprised that 80 percent said they had been abused in the past, and I was stunned that 90 percent had never had a legal job. These were incredible obstacles. ...

"[I learned of a program called] Restorative Justice. The name alone piqued my interest. Nothing I'd seen in the criminal justice system had ever been in the business of 'restoring' anything. I'd seen crimes committed, I'd seen people punished, lives and families ruined, but never restoration. ... The three principles of restorative justice are offender accountability, victim restoration and community involvement to heal the harm caused by crime. ... The goal of restorative justice was to heal the victims, for perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions and make meaningful restitution, and for governments and communities to be part of the process. ...

"Most people I think believe that prison or jail should be a horrible experience. People don't think of it as a deterrent so much as just deserts. 'They' hurt 'us' therefore 'we' should hurt 'them.' For years, politicians have won elections by promising to take away cable television and weight rooms and anything seen to make prison cushy. We have a culture where jokes about prison rape are made out in the open. The prevailing wisdom is that prisoners deserve to be treated like animals; they should fear prison and suffer while they are there. Anyone who has spent time working with prisoners knows this has largely come to pass. What most people don't realize is the consequences of making prisons a living nightmare. Most of the inmates I'd worked with, particularly when I was a law intern, felt punished, but not many of them took responsibility for their crimes or felt any remorse.

"Martin Aguerro, the pedophile, the first client I had when I started in 1980, was a case in point. He complained about the squalid treatment and living conditions in jail, he felt wronged, but I never got the sense that he thought about his crimes. In fact, everything about the system of prosecution and defense is set up so that criminals get into a habit of denying their responsibility. Every step of the way between the arrest and the trial people accused of crimes deny everything or keep silent. It's what their defense attorneys tell them to do. After their trial if they're convicted many don't change their mind-set. Why should they? To truly confront what they've done requires confronting the shame and fear and the reality of their situation. Few people choose to do this because it's difficult. After all it's hard for noncriminals to take responsibility for doing the wrong thing, much less someone sitting in a prison cell. So criminals blame someone or something else—the cop who caught them or their lousy upbringing—for their circumstances and spend their time growing angrier and angrier about being treated like an animal. They are usually full of rage when they are released and less prepared to function as citizens; the predictable products of the monster factory."


Sunny Schwartz and David Boodell


Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison Redemption and One Woman's Fight to Restore Justice to All


Scribner a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Sunny Schwartz and David Boodell


93-94, 126-127
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