Prison and prisons

We have got to do this better.

We know that solitary confinement is torture, that it does nothing but push broken people to their breaking points–and how does that make society or any of us safer?  We know this and yet we keep doing it, even if President Obama recently banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison (though I’m unsure of what this means for young people in state prisons or local detention).  Not only do we keep doing it, but when we run out of space we don’t look for alternatives, we simply double up people (including people with a history of violence or known to have a mental illness) in the same small, confined space we already know to cause healthy people to lose their minds.

Not to mention that “the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are jails: Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City and Cook County Jail in Illinois“–institutions that at best are ill equipped for mental health treatment, and at worst can be fatal.  These are preventable deaths.  We moved towards deinstitutionalization for a reason, and for very good ones, but we still haven’t quite figured out what to do instead, and how.

Even those who come out don’t come out unscathed.  Kids learn to become criminals, and I’m not sure what we expect people with criminal records to do if they can’t get or keep a job after they get out.

Not that there isn’t a need or a place for corrections, but when we fail to remember that the purpose is supposed to be making it safer for all of us, when we fail to take the long view…  We asked for a cheap (at first), quick bandage and that’s what we got.  I don’t know what the answers are but we better do something differently because this is death by a thousand cuts, times a thousand, times a thousand…

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Precision of Language: What do you say?

That’s so gay.
You’re retarded.
One day she’s hot, one day she’s cold.  She’s so schizophrenic!

There’s a scene in the movie The Giver where Jonas’s mother reprimands him about “precision of language” when he talks about feelings.  (Side note: I say movie as I haven’t read the book since fourth grade and can’t recall if that was the actual wording or just the script wording.  As to be expected, skip the movie, read the book.  Seriously, read The Giver.) 

There’s laziness in language–and I myself am guilty of it constantly.  Hey, can you toss me that thingamajig that’s on top of the uh, thing over there?  Or stuff.  I say stuff all the time.  I use certain phrases like muscle memory.  I’m sure the people who sit next to me at work and hear me on the phone are really sick of them.

Speaking of muscle memory and the things we don’t have to think about, and the things we don’t think about: there is laziness in language, and there is use of language that betrays the experiences and the people we’ve never considered.

Earlier today, I overheard someone say on the phone to a friend, “Oh, you guys are so gay.”  My head snapped around and I looked up to see if I was the only person who had heard this–which apparently I was.  And I could feel the red well up in me.  That stuttering that comes from the pit of your stomach and always seems to end in your guts awash on the floor and the other person mildly confused but none the wiser and mostly dry.

There’s saying “stuff” when you mean that pile of laundry or all of your belongings or all the household chores you need to do this weekend.  And then there’s saying “retarded” when you mean stupid or illogical or absurd.  Using the name of very serious illness to describe someone they don’t understand–something we do with mental illness when we’d never say, “That’s so asthmatic!”  Calling someone or something “gay” when you mean…okay, I’ve never actually figured out what exactly people mean when they call you that.

What do you say?

Sometimes I say something and sometimes I don’t, usually depending on how well I know the person or how brave I’m feeling at the moment.  I didn’t say anything today because I was angry and knew whatever I said wouldn’t come out right.  And I didn’t know if the comment was indicative of her being homophobic or being friends with people who felt that way or if it was just a habit she’d never paused to think about.  Laziness of language.

Precision of language.  Is that the tack to take?  To ask the person what they truly mean and try to offer some words that actually mean what they’re trying to express?  Buy them a thesaurus?

There was one time that Mike Huckabee was debating Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and they clearly had very strong and different opinions but were having a open and respectful debate about it.  I don’t recall the topic, but I do remember Huckabee commenting at the end about how we needed more light and less heat.

More light, less heat.  I know in my head that one should strive to educate instead of launching a personal attack.  Because, “THAT’S SO OFFENSIVE, YOU JERKFACE!” rarely succeeds in doing anything other than convincing people that you are the super-sensitive PC-language police who wants to ban all the words.  It’s not about being politically correct or even just correct.

The PC-terms change.  I’m not even sure what they are half the time.  The r-word used to be the medical term.  But that was before people began using it as a slur.  Language evolves.  Words don’t have meaning without context.  It’s not about the labels or the names or the words.  It’s about the way in which we can flippantly denigrate whole groups of people and their very human experiences and make them other, make them less than, make them something other than human beings who bleed like we do.

In the heat of the moment, it is hard to remember that other people don’t need us to protect them and beat up people who might have been mean to them.  We’d be much more helpful if we educated people who could be allies.  Maybe they really are hateful, but usually people just aren’t thinking about their choice of words.  And we are losing an opportunity if we treat them as the enemy.  Then everybody just shuts down.

That being said–or more precisely, written–it’s one thing to know or write these things and to actually communicate them verbally when your diaphragm is a fist and it’s obstructing your throat.

What do you say?

Some days not saying anything heated in return is a small victory.  But any suggestions for things to actually say in person would be welcome additions to the toolbox.