We’ve all heard about the sheriff in Arizona who is famous for making inmates in the county jail eat surplus food, live in tents and wear pink. He has been applauded by many for his harsh and punitive treatment of prisoners.
For most of us, this isn’t an issue we think about often. We aren’t in jail, and may not know anyone who is. It’s easy to think that this issue affects “those people” and won’t ever really matter to us.
Some don’t even really think of inmates or prisoners as people. I hear otherwise good people use dehumanizing and derogatory terms to refer to those who’ve been convicted or accused of crimes.
Before you decide that people in jail or prison should be harshly punished, understand that 75% of inmates in Connecticut and 80% of those in Illinois were once in the foster care system. That’s right, before they were drug addicts, murderers, assailants, or thieves, they were lost, neglected, or abused children.
Recognize that over 97% of children in the Juvenile Justice System in Florida have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences and will likely end up in the adult justice system. These are just sample statistics but they are representative of everywhere else in the country.
I’m not saying these people aren’t responsible for their behavior and don’t need to be behind bars; some of them most certainly do. However, let’s consider the impact of their childhood experiences when we decide how to treat them while they’re there.
I realize not everyone with bad childhood experiences ends up committing crimes. We can all find examples of people who endured serious abuse or neglect and went on to live full and productive lives. Some of you may be examples of this yourself.
But the fact is, most criminals did experience abuse, neglect or some other significant childhood disruption. Children who don’t have these experiences almost NEVER develop serious behavioral problems.
Finding exceptions to the rule doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The way children are treated DOES matter and has a huge impact on their physical and emotional health.
So before we call them “animals” or “maggots” or some other dehumanizing term, let’s understand they were once victimized, often by their primary caregivers, long before they became criminals. Maybe they’ll become better people as a result; and if they don’t, at least we will.