Sunday, August 11, 2013

Turn Them Loose!

When I advocate for the Jubilee, I get a lot of nodding heads for the parts about canceling all debts and bringing all the soldiers home, but a lot of good people have reservations about releasing all the prisoners. Yes, that is one of the provisions of the Jubilee as described in Leviticus 25. Those who believe in the Bible would be well served by reading everything it says about prisons, but since I don't claim to live by the Bible, I'm not going there.

I truly believe that the world would be safer if we released every person now held in US prisons. This nation now imprisons more than 1% of all residents, a greater number than any nation ever has, and it's not making us any safer. Recidivism is up, at least partly driven by the insatiable greed of prisons for profit. The industry drives laws through the American Legislative Exchange Council mandating more and longer sentences, thus making greater profits. They exploit the prisoners for cheap labor and charge whatever they like for the most basic amenities, like shampoo, toothpaste, and phone calls.

Many prisoners when finally released have poor odds of staying out. They are often in debt and required to register their living arrangements with local authorities, who suspect them first of any wrongdoing. Stigmatized by society, they are part of a huge criminal under culture that sees no reason to respect the law. Since the prison profits from their return, they are given no substantial assistance in learning how to live legitimately.

A disproportionate percentage of prisoners are people of color, often locked up for things white folk routinely get away with. Please read Michele Alexander's New Jim Crow to begin to understand the tragic of infusion of racism in the program of mass incarceration in the USA. Poor white guards lord their power over prisoners and abuses are rampant, especially as draconian lawmakers justify treatment such as routine humiliation or extended solitary confinement, internationally recognized as torture.

What about the crimes these people have committed? About half are undocumented immigrants whose only real crime is being born in the wrong place. The USA is happy to import all the resources, but not the people who were dependent upon those resources. It is exceedingly difficult for those born in the global south to find a legal path for immigration. When they cross borders to find the only work available to sustain their families (due to international market manipulation like NAFTA), they submit themselves to occasional jail terms. The average stay in ICE detention is two years before inevitable deportation and many repeat this pattern through their lives.

The second biggest cause of imprisonment is drug offenses, primarily marijuana possession. It is now common knowledge that pot is safer than either alcohol or tobacco, but painstakingly slow to change old laws. Even if the drug in question is crystal meth or heroin, society would be better served by building effective treatment programs rather than prisons. It is draconian to lock people away for a medical condition like addiction. It's also a waste of money. The most common addictions are to alcohol and nicotine, which we treat differently than every other drug. Why? Addicts rarely have much difficulty getting a fix behind bars. What better place to learn how to steal & cheat to support a habit?

"What," you may ask, "about serious crimes, like murder?" Having lost my sister to murder, I feel qualified to answer this one. Locking up her killer did not bring her back, nor did it likely prevent any further murders, if we're honest about it.  The cascading of violence was unchecked. A man who was wounded in the same shooting was later sought for questioning about another murder in the same place. Prison did nothing to fix our pain or save others.

Murder historically has the lowest rate of recidivism of all crimes. People are unlikely to kill twice because killing another person is a very distasteful experience. Generally, murder is a crime of passion. People lose their head when they become killers. Knowing they have killed is the greatest punishment most murderers suffer. Some even seek relief on death row because they are unable to forgive themselves for such depravity.

There are serial killers who have somehow rationalized repeated killing. The vast majority of these sick people work for the government, either in a military role like JSOC or as state executioners. It is past time we join the civilized world and stop teaching and encouraging such behavior. Perhaps isolation from civil society is an appropriate part of the treatment of these people, but there are too few examples of such healing in prisons.

I will admit there are sociopaths and psychopaths in our prisons. The most difficult to reconcile are the rapists, who are very likely to repeat their crime. I wouldn't be the first to recognize that our society does a poor job of dealing with the culture of rape. High school heroes who commit heinous rapes get a wink and a nod, as long as the victim was considered insignificant by local officials. The majority of rapes do not lead to conviction and most convicted rapists are eventually released to rape again. Rape, both heterosexual and homosexual, is much more common in the military than in civil society, because the military is all about violent control.

Unfortunately, the prison system teaches this behavior.  Our reliance upon prisons increases the incidence of rape. Rape in prison is more common than outside, whether perpetrated by guards or fellow inmates. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant in prison culture. Indeed the existence of prisons as institutions stands as proof that brutal domination is the ultimate power.

But that's a lie. The suffering of brutality is shared by the perpetrator. The suicide rate among prison guards is 39 percent higher than the average for other occupations, an Archives of Suicide Research study found, almost as high as that of combat veterans. In prisons, guards and prisoners together wallow in the misery of inhumanity and it's not making anything better, because prisons are still part of the outside world and they are dragging us down. It is time for broad scale liberation.

Prisons, like militaries, are part of a government run protection racket. As long as you pay the boss your fealty and we don't have any reason to suspect that you come from a demographic likely to rebel, the government guns will protect you. If they suspect you may get out of line, or find a good way to make more money exploiting you, you're toast.

Because prisons are doing more harm than good, I favor a radical shift. Shut them down. Release all prisoners. Repurpose the resources to solve social problems. Prisons could be converted to voluntary detoxification centers, akin to Buddhist monastaries, where people could peacefully detoxify through simple work and diet. By removing the element of violent control, we open the possibility of genuine healing.

What do we do with sociopaths and psychopaths? Help them heal. Relieve their suffering and they will stop spreading it. The methods of psychologist Carl Rogers and his student, Marshall Rosenberg, have proven very effective for decades in encouraging the natural development of empathy and compassion. Everyone can benefit from reading Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. Please study the work of The Freedom Project in Washington State prisons. This project has proven to be one of the most effective treatment programs ever, even for serial rapists.

Okay, say people rise up and demand a clean start. Crime is not going to suddenly go away. What do we do about crimes if we don't lock people up?

After the Jubilee, there may still be a role for prisons in our society, but on a much smaller scale than we now practice. Only those who have proven themselves to be an irresolvable threat to society should be locked away and they should get continual compassionate treatment, so that we don't fall back into the mess we now have. Nobody is beyond redemption, but some may die before they decide to learn how to live responsibly with others. The best we can do is keep giving them chances to prove their recovery. If we sink to treating them as irredeemable, we risk losing our own humanity and sinking to their level.

Perhaps the best examples of functional criminal justice systems come from places that have recovered from violent civil war, South Africa and Northern Ireland. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that a simple, honest examination of their violent past, hearing from the players on all sides of the violence, created better understanding and room to focus on building a better future together. Ireland's system of Restorative Justice sat convicted perpetrators of violence in mediated sessions with their victims. In most cases they were able to find avenues for perpetrators to express remorse and make amends, which freed the victims to forgive. It wasn't easy, but it was very fruitful and saved a huge amount of money that had been wasted on prisons, releasing men who became productive members of a healing society.

Violence is not inevitable. Every two year old learns that it is not acceptable to hurt others. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by love and compassion know a force more powerful. Let's all start living up to our own best ideals.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Talking Shit

Why do we consider it rude to discuss the natural nutrient cycle?

Why are most gardeners afraid to do what is best for their vegetables?

Why is the topic of excrement taboo?

Humans, like every other animal on the planet, pass most of what they eat through their digestive tract. Fungus and bacteria, many resident in the lower intestines, convert this waste into soil that is optimal for growth of the plants, which produce the food upon which humans depend.

Modern life seriously disrupts this fundamental cycle.

First, a word about the taboo… Babies are curious about everything, including their own poop. They test with their primary sensory organ, their mouth. Baby shit, being digested mother’s milk, is pretty benign stuff, and little damage is done. But mothers have a natural drive to defend their babies, so they teach them, in no uncertain terms, that once that stuff leaves your ass you leave it alone. Thus, each of us has learned a primal lesson. “No shit!”

For most of human history, that primary lesson was enough. If you drop it on the ground and leave it alone, animal excrement becomes soil that encourages healthy plants. Organic farmers know this.

The problem apparently started with urban accumulation. When people started living in denser packs, the process of soil construction was often shortened, leading to people inadvertently ingesting feces from each other and domestic animals. Many fecal bacteria, such as E. Coli, are disruptive in tissues outside of the colon. We don’t want them breaking down our skin or our upper GI tract they way they do food waste.

The concept of waste management was born from a rudimentary understanding of the infectious potential of soil creating organisms. With limited availability of sufficient land to process growing amounts of shit, people developed a process unprecedented among land animals. We began to defecate in the water.

This bought some time before we finally realized that when the people downstream drink what the people upstream crapped in, and we again had contamination issues. Being creatures of habit, rather than questioning the assumptions that lead to flush toilets, we developed industrial processes to clean the water. These have never been perfected, but the problem seemed more manageable.

Scientists have long recognized fundamental differences between aerobic and anaerobic decomposition. Virtually every human pathogen is anaerobic. When air circulation is present through the decomposing mass, processes tend to be dominated by thermophiles, microbes that create and flourish in heat. In the same manner as a patient’s fever can kill a disease, thermophiles eliminate pathogens in fecal compost.

Unfortunately, decomposition under water is always anaerobic. It is virtually impossible to reconcile flush toilets with the natural process of soil building. Although elaborate systems have been developed to biodegrade urban waste aquatically, they fail to take advantage of the natural processes through which we evolved.

Composting toilets have been in use for generations. They are perfectly healthful. Furthermore, composting our waste completes the natural nutrient cycle and eliminates the need for commercial fertilizers, most of which are derived from fossil fuels.

As the industrial era crumbles around us, how can we best use this knowledge to create a healthy future? It makes sense for us to build and use simple composting toilets, which will safely process our natural waste for eventual use in our gardens.  Having built and used several composters, I’ll give you my favorite design.

The compost should be in direct contact with the soil, even though some state laws prohibit this. This makes it easier to maintain the right moisture levels, invites earthworms & microbes into the process, and does not increase the likelihood of contamination. Living soil is beneficial. That’s the whole point.

Containment should be substantial and rot resistant. Concrete blocks, poured walls, or rock are ideal for the first three feet off of the ground. Build two areas, each able to hold about a cubic yard of compost. There is no need for a separation wall between them. You will be using one while the other processes. Plywood flooring works fine for the top.

Besides the hole above from which to deposit the compost, each tank will need an access through which you can turn or remove the soil.  Use mesh and screen to keep flies and other pests out, but to allow air to flow through. Seal the toilet seat & lid with gaskets to prevent bugs and odors.

Start the pile with small sticks and reeds. Cover and nest each deposit with straw or wood chips. This will improve the carbon nitrogen balance and provide channels for airflow. It’s okay to put any household or garden compost into the system. Many find that green plant material, such as leaves or grass, is better than toilet paper, but either will decompose quickly.

By the time the second tank fills, the first should be substantially decomposed and pretty much free of odor. If it doesn’t seem completely broken down, you can turn it onto a new batch of sticks to continue the process before introducing it to your garden. Simply cover the pile with plant material and wait until it is nothing but clean soil.