When Punishment Breeds Sadism

In Medieval times men believed the best way to punish criminals was to inflict crimes on them. How far we've come!The Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997 -- recently passed by the House and now awaiting action by the Senate -- would have us believe that the best way to deal with 13-year-old felons is to house them in adult prisons.As one who recently spent some seven years incarcerated for bank robbery, I'm well aware of the dangers facing younger and smaller men if they are bound over to the nation's penal institutions. But when I point out that sending 13-year-olds to adult prisons is to tolerate rape, I'm told -- by generally good citizens -- "He should have thought of that when he first committed his crime." Or some offer an even lazier defense --- "Well, it won't kill them."The irony is striking. For the past year, Americans across the country have gone into near-panic at the thought of having a sexual offender released from prison into their communities. The outcry over one parolee's rape-murder of a young girl prompted Congress to pass Megan's Law, requiring a kind of public branding on parolees and ex-convicts convicted of sexual offenses.Communities enthusiastically follow the letter and spirit of this law. Yet we apparently think nothing of sending a whole batch of kids to spend the rest of their teenage years behind bars with these very same men. The Juvenile Crime Control Act might be seen as a way of promoting the very sexual behavior we're most bent on eliminating.Behind these seemingly contradictory impulses is that oldest of Puritan attitudes -- you get what you deserve! When asked on "This Week With David Brinkley" what he thought should happen to Mike Tyson after he bit his opponent's ear, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said he thought someone should bite a piece of Tyson's ear off. Sam Donaldson chuckled nervously. Kristol went on to defend his "eye for an eye" position with biblical noises about being a conservative who apologizes to no man for a belief that is three-thousand years old. Indeed, he was proud that his idea of vengeance comes with a "pedigree."A video camera captured a Riverside, California sheriff administering his own brand of justice on Alicia Sotero. She was one of a truck full of suspected undocumented immigrants which had led police on a high speed chase. The sheriff dragged her body out through the window, threw her on the ground and beat her with his baton. It was hard to watch, but when my neighbor saw the footage on TV, he remarked, "That's what she gets for entering the country illegally."A prisoner -- a convicted burglar in his early 30s was stabbed to death in his prison cell while he slept, probably the victim of a drug grudge. When a guard heard of the murdered inmate, he brushed off the homicide by saying to me that he had no sympathy for the dead burglar. "He should have thought about this consequence while he was committing his crimes."I know firsthand that most inmates are not sexual offenders or the type of people who would prey on 13- or 14-year-olds. Indeed, most prisoners will look on juveniles in their midst as an annoyance -- let me do my time without having to worry about the fate of a cell mate! And some may adopt paternal attitudes towards those they feel have been too readily disposed of by society.But I also know how fine a line separates punishment from sadism. At the age of 13, I spent several months in a facility in Los Angeles called McClaren Hall where children of all ages are temporarily housed after they are rescued from abusive homes. Go there and you, too, will find children healing from black eyes, broken ribs, fractured skulls. Twenty years later, I still recall vividly the five-year-old on crutches, a victim, like me, of a zealous disciplinarian.Can a 13-year-old boy commit a crime where he deserves to be placed at risk of being raped because of it? The House has answered this question with a resounding "yea." Commit a murder, in what is normally considered early adolescence, and Congress may allow you to suffer like an adult for it.We as a society are approaching a stoplight of the road to relishing sadism. Either we admit we are lost and begin to make a U-turn, or we press on the gas and speed through the warning sign.PNS associate editor Joe Loya, a Los Angeles-based writer, frequently covers prison issues.

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