What are the principles of humanity on which to build a prison, a school, or anything else?

I am always interested by how often a thought or idea I may encounter in my daily reading online, most often in the op-ed section of the Times, but also in any number of other news and opinion journals like the NY and Boston Reviews, the Atlantic, Slate, the Economist, and others, how often what I read can be easily applied to something else that may have my interest at the moment.

Today I read Jessica Benko’s piece, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, and found there a key idea that I have already applied profitably to any number of subject areas other than Norway’s Halden Prison.

A card game between inmates.                                                                       Credit Knut Egil Wang for The New York Times

The article, or course, was mostly about Halden Prison, although with frequent unfavorable comparisons made to prisons in the United States. My own impressions of prisons in the U.S., are much like my impressions of the schools in the U.S. Both prisons and schools seem to be going nowhere, to have reached a dead end in regard to their respective goals of rehabilitation and literacy, and perhaps that accounts for my present lack of interest in both.

On the other hand what both the prisons and the schools have done well has been to successfully confine their respective populations, those with whom otherwise we wouldn’t have a clue what to do, to a single location, and to hold them there, well separated from the rest of us, until the ones, the prison inmates, have completed their sentences, and the others, the kids in the classrooms, have turned 18.

Even the goals of the two institutions are similar. That of the Norwegian penal system, were told, is to get the inmates out of it, re-integrated into society. That of the public schools is also to get the kids out, in this instance out of school, and into college or jobs. If the schools are more successful than the prisons in releasing and freeing their respective populations it’s only because all the kids will reach age 18 no matter what is done to them in school.

Also kids, although they may well later on drop out of college, even out of a first job, they won’t be returned to school. Ex-offenders on the other hand may also drop out, out of society, as it were, and if they offend again they will be returned to prison.

But what about that “big idea” in Jessica Benko’s article that grabbed me and got me thinking about other things.  (Schools, by the way, were not mentioned in her piece.)

Near the end of the article the author recounts her meeting in Oslo with Ragnar Kristoffersen, an anthropologist and teacher at the Correctional Service of Norway Academy which trains correction officers.

Benko asked Kristoffersen if he had spent time at Halden and reaching into his briefcase and pulling out a handful of printed papers, he replied: “Have you seen this? It’s preposterous!” In his hand he held printouts of English-­language articles about the prison. He had highlighted the most offensive and misleading lines. He read a few passages with disgust. Benko acknowledged that the hyperbolic descriptions would catch the attention of American and British readers, for whom the cost of a prison like Halden would probably need to be justified by strong evidence of a significant reduction in recidivism.

Then Kristoffersen latched on to that subject and went into a rant about the unreliability of recidivism statistics for evaluating corrections practices. From one local, state or national justice system to another there are diverse and ever-­changing policies and practices in sentencing — what kinds and lengths of sentences judges impose for what types of crimes. How likely they are to re-incarcerate an offender for a technical violation of parole, how much emphasis they put on community sentences over prison terms and many other factors, making it nearly impossible to know if you’re comparing apples to apples, the implication being you’re not.

The question of what qualifies as recidivism came up. Benko asked Kristoffersen if a low re-incarceration rate might reflect the fact that long prison sentences mean that many prisoners become naturally less likely to re-offend because of advanced age. He agreed that was possible, along with many other more and less obvious variables. It turned out that measuring the effectiveness of Halden by recidivism statistics in particular was nearly impossible.

(I thought of our endless attempts to measure the effectiveness of our public schools, or our system of health care, of our actions in the Middle East… what to measure by, what might be an adequate measure…there being always too many variables to take into account, and hence our frequent errors, all probably based on wrong or insufficient information.)

And here I get to the crux of the matter.

“You have to be aware,” Kristoffersen said, that “there’s a logical type of error which is common in debating these things. You shouldn’t mix two kinds of principles. The ones may be about, How do you fight crime? How do you reduce recidivism? etc. And the others, of a different nature entirely, what, for example, are the principles of humanity that you want to build your system on? The two kids of principles are totally different and lead to different actions.”

He paused, and then said, as if in illustration of the second type of principle, one based upon our humanity. “If you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself. If you’re working with principles of humanity you should avoid treating anyone badly. In officer-­training school guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is something they should do not for the inmates but for themselves. The theory is that if officers are taught to be harsh, domineering and suspicious, it will ripple outward in their lives, affecting their own self-­image, their families, even Norway as a whole.”

That’s it I said to myself. We’re wrong to debate such issues as whether the schools are achieving their goal of educating their students, whether education, whatever it may be, is actually happening, and other such. And given the number of factors, of variables in the lives of students and teachers it’s probably impossible to measure the school’s effectiveness. And I would add that it’s impossible to reform anything, schools, hospitals, prisons from the top down.

Isn’t Kristoffersen’s reasoning true in regard to most if not all of the issues that confront us now-a-days? We ought not to be on the outside, as it were, asking if marriage between a man and a woman is the only kind there is, or if children are better off with one or two parents, if illegals are law-breakers or rather much like previous waves of immigrants who come here with a dream of a better life? Furthermore aren’t illegals just as much as the rest of us making positive contributions to the society? While we have many among us who seem to know the answers to these and other such questions, or at least act as if they did, there are no simple answers. The Tea Party, the land of simple answers, ought to shut down.

Instead of thinking about how we by our actions might correct to some extent if not solve one or more of our “problems,” we ought to be thinking about ourselves, and proceeding in our actions from our common humanity rather than from our most often faulty understanding of the problem. We ought to be looking for those principles of humanity that we want all our systems, all our actions, be it in the areas of healthcare, immigration, education, the family, and yes, even our foreign interventions, be built upon, have them with us, almost a part of us as we address whatever may be the problem.

Just as in the prison the guard’s manner with the prisoners was probably more important than anything else, so should our approach to any problem or issue start with the rightness of the approach itself, with the underlying principles stemming from our common humanity that need to be protected.

In questions regarding marriage and the family, for example, which is better, the two or one parent home, we ought to be looking rather at the stability of the family environment, whatever the family structure may be. Similarly just as in questions regarding our schools we shouldn’t be mostly taken up by details such as class size, curriculum and subject matters, but should proceed from the principle that the individual’s growth and development is all important (this a common principle of our humanity) and that any number of different “school” environments may best bring this about.

To say it once again, in all of our debates regarding social issues and questions, where there are always more variables than we can possibly and adequately take into account and logically address, hadn’t we ought to be looking at the principles of humanity that we want all our systems to be built upon. Principles as to how people might best live together, guards and inmates, teachers and students, adults and children, citizens and non-citizens….

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