Locked up, down on luck

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By Myke U. Obenieta

So to speak

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


NOBODY wins as long as there’s no outgrowing the odd but inseparable twins called crime and punishment. Where law and order also remain as sleepless as strange bedfellows, the scent of fear and loathing is inescapable. Indeed, peace of mind is most fugitive where we fall short of these comforts—an elbow room, a breathing space.

Out of mind, those we condemn as unworthy of society continue to make their presence felt even as we find no love lost. Offenders, we call them. Demonized, they persist in defining the limits of our understanding. Thus they overwhelm us at our wit’s end.

The disproportion is damning. For instance, America accounts for nothing more than five percent of the planet’s population and yet it has “nearly one-quarter of its prisoners.” As stated in a Harvard Magazine article, “The United States has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate…”

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This runaway sense of emergency, inducing the phenomenon of “mass incarceration,” has been the outcome of an all-out tough-on-crime blitz such the much-publicized war on drugs. Never mind if such a punitive policy tended to be biased against the poor or the racially discriminated as proven by the fact that many African-Americans have ended up as the usual convicts.

Crime does pay. And so the market trend for privatizing America’s prisons has been soaring with a supply-and-demand jam for jailbirds. Despite the construction of more correctional warehouses, overcrowding persists.

In California, for instance, the dehumanizing condition of congestion has compelled a 2011 landmark decision from US Supreme Court that has required the state to scale back its prison population. As scholars in criminal justice point mounting evidence of failure of the punitive penal culture, they have pushed for policy shift toward rehabilitation and reentry.

Programs for prisoners’ social reintegration have spawned crime-control alternatives that factor in the need for change both in “individual propensities towards crime” and in the “offending environment.” So far, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have swung bipolar.

Along with the rising incarceration rates, the number of inmates being released back to their communities is also going up to “around 700,000 annually.” Even as surveys have yielded strong public support for rehabilitation and reentry to society, fear of felons persists with misgivings about the threat of their recidivism or relapse to criminal ways. Worries regarding a “backfire effect” and “a revolving door of justice” remain out in the open.

Closer to home, the penal system in the Philippines is also up for some long-overdue reassessment about its state of neglect. In a forum in Cebu recently, an official of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) said what has been common knowledge, stating “the country’s major jails—including those in the cities of Lapu-Lapu, Cebu, Mandaue and Danao—are congested” beyond capacity.

As he laid out some judicial strategies to address the backlog of cases that left many detainees awaiting trial, he also aired his concerns about “the harsh conditions in jail” that resulted in sickness and deaths. Yes, he stated, criminals also have human rights regardless how often these are violated behind bars.

Constraints are countless, or so the BJMP could have echoed ad infinitum the usual suspect—our so-called Third World circumstance. Budget woes may whip up even an insomniac into yawning, but it’s a wake-up call nonetheless as the BJMP has reportedly “decided to pull out all its personnel at the Operation Second Chance (OSC) in Cebu City, a facility for juvenile delinquents.” No knock could have been harder in the head for a city that has been crowing about its mindset for progress.

Talk about arrested development—especially if the migraine over the matter of OSC would stay unresolved— and our leaders may as well be stumped or stuck with a chain and ball around their feet. Far from being answered, indeed, is this query that has long challenged, if not accursed, our authorities: How to come to terms with the circumstances around which crime occurs?

(geemyko@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 04, 2014.

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