The Price of Punishment Experienced as a Layperson

In my early thirties I completed a year of clinical internship within a secure treatment juvenile detention facility for adjudicated girls. It was a new, state-of-the-art building structured to be environmentally savvy, as well as very much look and feel like a prison. Having worked within both adult and adolescent correctional facilities, it was interesting to find little difference in the general ambiance between the two.

My office in the juvenile facility was a converted cell fully equipped with a heavy metal door housing a small one-way window into the hall. As a new, green building the office contained a large window allowing ample light, but no ability to see a view outside. I spent my days in this mute room that was just one among many along a hallway of other converted cells. When I needed a break from my paperwork, I had the ability to roam as I liked throughout facility, but where would I go? The school building was in another hallway. If I journeyed down there during the day, there would be nothing to do and no one with whom I could socialize. Sitting anywhere in the facility I was surrounded by limited site of the outside and the same stale, beige and neutral surroundings. I certainly had the freedom to leave the building for a walk, but exiting was always a process and the surrounding area was fairly isolated.

Solitary Watch

For the first time in my correctional work I felt uncomfortably restless within an hour of entering the building. Even with a three days a week schedule that had me consistently maintaining a nine to five day, I was surprised by how tormented I felt plodding through each day. I saw the same faces every day. The environment never altered, even when I caught a glimpse beyond the florescent lighting illuminating every corner of each room. I kept myself busy the best I could, but as an intern, regardless of my previous work history and credentials, I was allotted very little responsibility. Consequently, it was a struggle to consume the hours of my day, even when creating the most mundane of busy work and projects. I spoke to few. I experienced little challenge, and was not required to be anywhere or do anything most of the time. The inadvertent oppressive feeling weighed on me to the point of jitters by the end of each day. I found myself desperate for contact, for a diversion, for something, anything interesting.

Taking a step back I realized even with my exceedingly limited exposure to this face of incarceration, I felt a profound understanding of what is entailed in losing freedom. So, when I viewed the recent 60 Minutes story on the German penal system, other than a knee-jerk initial reaction to their vastly different approach, I accept the premise that there is little need to embellish the punishment of corrections aside from depriving an individual of freedom. After all, I went home to see my family at the end of the day. I had no opposing force dictating all decisions and circumstances of my existence. The incarcerated adolescents, however, spent a minimum of six months immersed in the very same feelings I only tasted; adult sentences are significantly longer, perpetuating the heaviness of losing variation, control, and choice.

Then there is the secondary issue of rehabilitative needs for our corrections system highlighted in the video segment. Instead of preaching of needs in the abstract I will impart aspects of a conversation I had with a seventeen-year-old young woman in one of my clinical groups in a mental health treatment facility. She was incarcerated for the minimum sentence in the very institution I completed my internship, but our paths did not cross before this meeting. Even though I was impressed and well aware of the activities staff planned at the juvenile detention center, as well as the efforts to structure the environment as restorative for the individual as possible, it did not surprise me when she described it as long, numb length of time. She articulately illustrated some of the transitional difficulty she had once she returned to her home and community. She characterized in some detail dressing herself upon her release. Incarcerated for a mere six months wearing a uniform had her freeze looking at her own clothing, unable to decide what to wear and the process involved in creating an ensemble regardless of her plans for the day.

Dressing is one life skill among many taken for granted outside prison walls. If six months is enough time to erode something seemingly so simple for a cognitively capable individual, what do we do with, for example, the nearly seventy-five percent of federally incarcerated individuals who will be released within five years? My position supporting penal rehabilitative efforts is not so much sentimental as pragmatic. If incarcerated individuals leave the system more compromised than when they arrived, is society in a better position?