By Ellis Chen, M.D. 12/99
I am a typical product of a conservative family with conservative views on the criminal justice system. All that changed after I became a statistic. I am not going to discuss my case here. What I wish to do is to comment on the tremendous gap between the public perception and the reality concerning the criminal justice system. An informed public is a critical element of democracy. However, the media and public officials seem far more interested in exploiting the public's ignorance and fear of crime than on encouraging an informed public debate on this subject. My experience has been an eye opening one for my family, friends and me. Now I wish to share it with you. ,
One of the first lessons I learned is that the so-called "revolving door" which let dangerous criminals out on the streets is not the work of liberal judiciary. It is the practice of plea-bargaining. From 75% to 90% of all criminal convictions resulted from the deals made between the prosecutors and public defenders. The experienced, sophisticated criminals now can ,easily manipulate while the naive, ignorant defendants get railroaded. If we examine any high profile crimes committed by repeated offenders, we will find that they could have been prevented had the criminals been aggressively prosecuted on prior cases rather being allowed to plea bargain. The mandatory sentencing laws like three strikes which tie the hands of judges are not needed, and only results in waves of petty criminals being incarcerated along with their more violent peers. All that is needed is to prosecute existing laws the way they were intended.
The second misconception I wish to address is the view that prison conditions are too soft. It is true that in my cell I have a small TV set and a small radio. On the recreation yard, there's a baseball, a basketball and a tennis, court. We are served two hot meals and a sack lunch every day. This may sound good, but to get a full understanding of prison life, one must view these perks in the context of institutionalized existence. I live in a cell the size of most people's bathrooms (6 x 10) which I must share with another prisoner. At any time the guards can and do, enter my cell and riffle through all my worldly possessions. Every aspect of my life from what I can do on a given day to when and where I can do it, is controlled by the power I have no influence over. Prison life breaks an individual down arid teaches dependence. It undermines the initiatives and self-control that are essential to function in the society. This is why so many of us are more at home in here than out there. It is not that life is so great in here, but rather so many have become institutionalized. In California, 67% of parolees return to prison. Why? Because they are programmed to fail. I have witnessed no more dramatic illustration than the suicides I have known. I have known lifers who killed themselves because they could not get out .and "short-timers" who killed themselves because they did get out and had nowhere to go.
One of the most glaring misconceptions about prison life is the nature of visiting. Here in California, there is a program called "family visiting" whereby the prisoners and their families can have overnight visits in small apartments, or trailers on the prison ground. These types programs are commonly referred to as "conjugal visits". However in California, these visits involve parents, siblings and spouses. My own parents and brother would visit several times a year for some private, quality time unobtainable in the noisy, crowded regular visiting room. During these "visits we observed many a family enjoy the same experience and reinforcing the bonds that keep them together. The Department of Corrections' own literature praised the program for encouraging good behavior and on reducing recidivism by maintaining family ties. However, due to the public's infatuation with punishment, regulations have been tightened, barring us from participating in the program and the whole program is in danger of being eliminated. The public must realize that I'm not being punished by this that my family is. We prisoners are already being punished by loss of freedom. Restricting visits punishes our loved ones as well and they don't deserve it.
It is my sincere hope that the truth will come out regarding the society' s self-destructive obsession with restitution. Ninety-nine percent of all prisoners will be released some day and will need some kind of positive support network before and after their release if they are to successfully re-enter into the society. A serious thoughtful public debate needs to be initiated if we’re to find a practical solution to these problems. Our national leaders have put themselves on a policy straightjacket from fear of being labeled as "soft on crime". People need to realize that compassion is not a sign of weakness but in fact requires great strength.