Cruel and usual

Dear President Trump,

I’ve decided writing to you and sending us all loving-kindness meditations has become too important to me to let go of yet. Besides, it’s highly likely I would become impossible to be around if I didn’t have these letters as an outlet for my frustration, dismay, and anxiety over what’s going on and what we are at grave risk of becoming. So here we are whether you know it or not.

The thing I want to raise up today is the issue of cruel and unusual punishment. I was talking with someone recently who has a brother in prison. He was sentenced to 25 years and since he was incarcerated 12 years ago he’s mostly been in solitary confinement for various rule infractions. He’s alone for 23 hours a day and gets one phone call a month. He is essentially confined in a cage alone with no human contact nearly all day for months on end, but really he is not alone in this. The most recent estimate of the number of people in solitary confinement in the US I could find is from 2012 and the number on any given day then was about 80,000. So really, although cruel, this punishment is quite usual.

Cruel and unusual punishment includes torture, deliberately degrading punishment, or punishment that is too severe for the crime committed. It was supposed to be banned by the Eighth Amendment in 1791.

I read an NPR article about a prison in North Dakota that has completely revamped how they handle solitary confinement, having realized it was not helping inmates change for the better at all. First, they stopped using it for minor rule violations, but do use it to address dangerous behavior. Second, they changed how it is structured so it includes more recreation time and several hours every day learning new skills and focusing on behavior change. The guards report that the number of violent incidents has decreased from 3 or 4 a week to 1 or 2 a year. North Dakota doesn’t face all the challenges that other state prison systems do (gang violence and sheer size). Still, there are lessons that could be extrapolated and changes that could be made if we had the will to reset and stop treating each other like expendable pieces of garbage and started valuing each one of us as the unique, invaluable, if troubled, works of art we are.

May we be safe to rethink old methods that really don’t work.
May we be happy to let go of being punitive.
May we focus instead on building health and facilitating growth.
May we be become a people that values people.

Tracy Simpson

p.s., I meant Calvary Church yesterday, not Cavalry….. ts

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