Posts Tagged faith in punishment

To End School-to-Prison Pipeline, Focus on Mental Health

Published by —  We’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly.

God knows what possessed me, but instead of multi-tasking I stayed glued to every hideous moment of PBS’s Solitary Nation.  The Warden of Maine State Prison, Rodney Bouffard, so questions the practice of solitary confinement that he allowed TV cameras to document 6 months in his solitary-confinement unit.  The hour-long piece shows blood, guts, feces, desperate screaming, and a level of misery that makes the worst media violence look tame and staged.

Don’t watch it.  Honestly.  Just take my word.  I squirmed knowing that as an American, I allow a public system to commit this torture.  Costing enormous taxpayer dollars, solitary turns human beings into self-mutilating, self-loathing, fiercely-murderous animals.  Mind you, these guys committed a violent crime while in prison.  But we’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly, by putting them in a prison-within-a-prison.

Bouffard says that 80% of his offenders will be released.  “You can have them do their time in isolation, but I don’t want them living next to me when you release them.  The normal person thinks that if you punish them, they’re going to get better.  The reality is the opposite.  It’s really dangerous.”  Got that?  What we’re doing is really dangerous.

Ironically, Maine’s laudable prison reforms have yielded the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, 145 people per 100,000.  That state works hard to imprison only those who can’t be maintained safely in the community.  Louisiana’s rate is almost 900, the highest, but the average is 480.

The school-to-prison pipeline generously feeds this system.

Violent criminals start young.  One Maine inmate tells of having killed two prison guards while already in prison at age 16.  Sixteen?!  How old was he when he committed the crime that first got him in prison?  Fifteen?  Fourteen?

Somehow he’s got a wife and 2 daughters.  As a lifer with no hope of release, he wants to be transferred to a prison near them so they can visit.  With chilling credibility, he says that with nothing to lose, he has no incentive not to kill again, and threatens the very people in the room.  He wants medication because it makes him calmer, more social.  But the officials feel he hasn’t learned his lesson and so hasn’t deserved the break.  Like he’s still a wayward schoolboy.

First we kick bad kids out of school.  Then we kick young offenders out of society, and finally we kick bad prisoners out of the prison’s mainstream.

Punishment doesn’t work, never has.

There are two basic theories of punishment that both rest on certain assumptions, whether for adults or juveniles.  “Retributists” assume bad guys deserve what they get.  They had choices and made a bad one; they hurt someone, so we’ll hurt them.  “Utilitarians” believe punishment deters future criminal activity.  Next time they’ll think twice.  Actually, research shows that over three quarters of ex-cons recidivate within five years, so forget that.  In any case, these theories assume that criminals are rational people weighing costs and benefits.

In fact, criminals tend to be young and impulsive, and not surprisingly, they usually have personal histories of trauma.  Fully 20% of prison populations have a diagnosed mental illness.  Far from rational, these are kids, or people with seriously impaired thinking.  In solitary they slash their wrists or misbehave wildly to get admitted to the mental health unit where meds will ease the rage, urges and pain.

Why not allow the dangerous to be chemically restrained?

Prison psychiatrist Dan Bannish says that his mental-health unit “is about treatment, not punishment.  Everything is geared toward skill development, relationship building and appropriate interactions.  Everything about it is about becoming social.  They’re used to coming from environments where people hurt each other, where they’re anti-social.  This is a whole build-up of how you relate to other people.  You have to practice it every day.”

Right, because big surprise:  these guys were lacking pro-social skills in the first place.  The science of “criminogenics” argues that the way to prevent recidivism is to make sure that when offenders are released, they are not socially isolated or still holding the antisocial beliefs that lead to their misbehavior.  In other words, they shouldn’t be in the same crazy-making situation they were in when they committed their crime.  As an advocate for children’s mental health, this makes me crazy.

Currently America’s incarcerated population is 2.4 million people, the largest by both rate and number in the world.  Of the total, 51% are drug-related offenders.  Robbers are only 4% and murderers 1%.  Substance abuse is a mental illness.

Therefore, raw prison statistics argue that we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not a nation with the world’s largest share of bad guys.

It’s insane to spend massive amounts of resources on punishment instead of mental health promotion.  Our priorities further crush vulnerable kids growing up in harsh conditions.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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The Educational Use and Abuse of Shame

Published by — Conscience isn’t innate.  We learn it.

Shame.  A feeling we all hate.  A subject we avoid.  Our faces flush when we can suddenly see ourselves being the sort of person even we don’t like.  Guilt is also unpleasant, with regret and remorse about something we did, a hurtful action.  Shame is “I am bad” as opposed to “I did something bad.”

When I was in graduate school, I was so clever as to make people laugh at a fellow student who often spouted impossibly-abstract ideas that I ridiculed.  But in a seminar one day, while victoriously scanning the amusement I’d caused — along with his pained forbearance — I saw myself as a camera might.  He’d never been anything but respectful and kind to me.  I was mortified — so red-faced people asked if I were all right.  I didn’t have the decency to apologize to him, then or later.  But henceforth I was keenly aware of my sharp tongue.  I reined it in, not just for poor Andy — if you’re out there, I’m apologizing now — but for all those who might be material for one of my cheap jokes.  I’m still ashamed.

But that’s the point.  If you can see your own bad behavior, that yucky shame is likely to guide you towards changing the behavior.  Helping people change their own behavior is the goal of all real discipline, a word that means “to teach.”  So whether you see your obnoxiousness on your own, as I did in that seminar, or by empathizing with those you’ve harmed or offended, shame pushes you to behave in socially-appropriate ways.

The renowned Australian criminologist John Braithwaite takes this point even further in his 1989 book Crime, Shame and Reintegration:  shame is how we acquire conscience.  Conscience isn’t innate.  One day we push our friends too hard, tease too viciously, and suddenly they want nothing to do with us.  Actions have consequences.  Braithwaite’s still-fascinating book argues that a healthy criminal justice system helps offenders see themselves through the victim or community’s eyes.  If they feel shame and take responsibility for their actions, they develop conscience and can be reintegrated in their communities.  (I’m hoping to see Braithwaite in July at a Vermont Restorative Justice conference where he’s a keynote speaker.)

My question to him is:  Given shame’s intrinsic lack of appeal, how can we help people see that it’s like a powerful interpersonal drug that can be restoratively tonic or fatally toxic to the human spirit, depending on how it’s used?

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming.  Modern research shows indisputably that when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.  I think the self-esteem movement produced a lot of anti-social behavior.

According to Braithwaite, learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family.  Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.  A strong foundation of love gives corrective power to the frowning.

But other families dole out punishment and humiliation as though that will somehow produce good behavior.  Braithwaite’s research shows that such families are “associated with later delinquency,” because the parents do all the work of controlling behavior.  If authorities keep humiliating, hurting, coercing, forcing the behavior they want to see, they’ll have to keep at it.  The kid isn’t learning internal controls.

Our super-punitive culture overuses prisons, school suspensions and expulsions, and all manner of kicking one another off the island, so to speak.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 40 percent of the world’s prisoners.  That punitive mindset trickles down to schools, to families, and finally to the kids themselves, fostering bullying.

Americans maintain a powerful, deep, abiding faith in punishment.  But shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil.  I’ll be curious to see if Professor Braithwaite has advice about how punitive Americans can finally see ourselves and the effects of our harsh practices.  A good, strong prick of chagrin might teach us to handle shame carefully, effectively, productively.  God knows it would be a favor to the kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Our Punitive Mindset Blinds us to Effective Discipline

Published by — President Obama’s Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans — deserves a good, hard look.

Dear President Obama,Millions of us are encouraged by your demand that schools reduce suspensions for black males.

No research shows that suspensions teach kids the social skills they need to keep them from getting tossed out of school in the first place.  None.  Suspensions label a kid “bad,” which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a badge of honor.  Students who already experience failure at school welcome a few days’ vacation on the couch with a TV.

But!  Beastly behavior in class ruins teaching and learning.  When feral or entitled children clown around, start fights or lash out at teachers with impunity, everyone suffers.  Teachers and parents of the so-called “good” kids feel that removing the disruptor is the only real weapon they have against chaos.

Here’s the over-arching problem:  We’re a deeply punitive culture.  We’re so zealous about our faith in the effectiveness of punishment, we don’t seem to care that research routinely argues that punishment doesn’t actually work.  It alienates the kids who most need help.  Trying to control kids’ behavior with external means — force, hurt, humiliation, school police — often backfires and makes things worse.  Even so, we take bad people out of their community, sequester them with other offenders, which makes them worse, only to send them back into a community that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place.  Makes no sense.

And yet we believe.

Because if we’re not punishing, we’re enabling.

Actually, enabling and punishment are two sides of the same harmful approach to kids.  American parents have become hopeless enablers.  They shield their kids from consequences, hoping to stay pals.  Good parents must be the bad guy sometimes.  It’s a ton of work and stress to teach kids that independence comes with responsibility.

Most people agree that enabling is harmful — when it’s other people’s kids.  We all detest entitled brats.  But unless someone lays a hand on her, we don’t question the harmful effects of cowing a child into compliance, controlling her by fear.

Punitive beliefs run so deep in American culture that even you, a credibly empathetic person, fall under the spell.  As President, you issued an order designed to curtail the punitive harm disproportionately meted out to black males.  It implied consequences.  But is punishing schools and teachers who are punishing the kids qualitatively different from banishing kids?

Or are we — even you Mr. President — taking the need for punishment so for granted that we’re fish not seeing the water?  America has the largest prison population in the world, both by rate and actual headcount.  We have 4.6 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Increasingly, we remand juveniles into adult prisons.

Between 1974 and 2006, school suspension rates grew from 3.7 to 6.9 percent, spiking around 1997 when the zero-tolerance policies were taking hold.

Meanwhile, the high-school graduation rate clawed its way up to only 72 percent last year, leaving many kids with poor prospects of ever engaging positively with their communities.

So I wanted to point out that the very reports that warn about the destructive effects of punishment often recommend restorative justice as a solution.  Few Americans even know what that is.  Internationally, restoration is huge.  Whole countries like Australia, New Zealand and most famously of late, Norway, have redesigned their judicial and social systems according to its principles.  I urge you to google it.

True, restorative justice does not satisfy our blood lust for revenge.  Instead, it holds offenders accountable by making them face the effects of their actions on their community.  Together, victims, offenders and the community negotiate restitution.  Low-level offenders can have a clean slate.  Some people are incapable of self-control and must be locked up.  Conventional judicial systems handle these cases.  Still, crime rates in these countries have gone down, as has recidivism.  The communities are healthier.

Conversely, in America, 60 percent of incarcerated juveniles are held for non-violent crimes.  Communities are struggling.

Over the last three decades many restorative initiatives have gotten started here, but faded away.  Punitive forces take over when a charismatic leader leaves or a grant runs out.  A striking exception is Vermont, whose restorative justice program, started in the mid-1990s, yields among the lowest juvenile and adult incarceration rates in the nation.

Instead of pushing kids out, restoration asks what could be pushed in?  What resources need to go into the homes, classrooms, schools and ‘hoods so every child will be warmly welcomed as emerging adult?

Imagine para-professionals working in classrooms – or families — teaching social skills where needed.  Parents quit enabling.  Disruptive kids learn community-appropriate skills.  Classroom communities learn how not to trigger troubled kids.  Removals might still happen, but the focus is still on getting the school, family or community to work as it should.

America spends 74 billion dollars on adult incarceration alone.  Better to spend some of that money to re-teach parenting, basic social skills and civilized negotiation.

As the President of the United States, you could help willing listeners to shift their efforts to restoring kids — to mental and physical health, to grade level at school, to good graces with the law.  Cultivate restorative practices, and suspension rates will drop like a stone.

Unquestionably, black males are most harmed by our punitive mindset.  But really, it’s bad for all of us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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