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Monday, May 16, 2011

Sounding the Difference Between an Explanation and an Excuse

I'm not sure it anyone out there noticed, but the content level on this site recently took an abrupt and elevated field trip from the land of my typically ham-fisted musings into the realms of topics of actual social value. I wish that this sort of thing happened a bit more often around here, but, hey, you get what you pay for in the blogosphere. I also wish that I had been responsible for this happy turn of events, but, alas, it is simply left to me to hitch a ride on the brilliance of others. My long-term readers are probably used to this by now.

The incident in question began with a post by Robert Pruett, which you can read HERE. It ended with a series of comments, most notably by "John," which you can read below in its entirety:

Blogger John said...

I read this blog, and although I agree with the argument "we mature as we age," and I am very happy that you recognize this, I believe it is ultimately a flawed train of thought regarding your circumstances. Biased on your part, if you will. I realize there are circumstances dictating every action, be that justified or not. I haven't dug in depth into the circumstances of your cases, and you're being on death row is not a factor in this, but you've been convicted of murder twice. Most people when they say, "I was wild in my youth," mean something to the effect of: juvenile criminal mischief, egging someones house, painting/stealing a street sign, getting in to a fight or two, drunken debauchery etc. I would venture to guess when you use that phrase, most people, have not committed murder. Our system is flawed in many ways, I will concede, but to some extent you can't blame your decisions on your situation growing up.

There is a Brig.Gen. that is the Commandant of the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M now that is from the 3rd ward in Houston, if I'm not mistaken. His name is BGN Joe Ramirez. He's from those same conditions you speak of, went to Texas A&M, graduated, became a General in the U.S. Army, and now returned to serve his alma mater. One of the most successful people I've ever met, and he openly shares his story of his trials and life.

I hope you understand this has nothing to do with your sentence, rather the accountability for your actions. I do not have enough information to make a decision whether or not I believe you should be on the row or not, so I will not even begin to venture down that slippery slope. Besides, my personal opinion on your sentence is irrelevant. You just came off as, "I had a rough life, that's why I did this."


God Bless, and God be with Mr. Taylor.



What we ultimately have here is an old argument between the forces of personal responsibility and free will, and the power of social forces. This is an altercation that has yet to be settled, although I think that we are a bit closer to finding some answers that are a little closer to the ”truth” than is generally understood by the public at large. Whatever the few standouts on the extreme end of this spectrum believe, I do not think this debate is as simple as one side standing for free will and the other side firmly in disbelief. I think that we all suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I haven't a clue exactly where, but I do know some people that have spent their lives zeroing in on this point, and I would like for you to know them, too.

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer is probably in order. I think that by this point my liberal tendencies have become quite apparent around here so it should probably not come as much of a surprise to many of you that I do find myself agreeing with Robert on his central premise. I wouldn't be a very good Sociology major if I didn't recognize and study how the power of the situation affects human behavior. I simply want to say that while I like and respect Robert Pruett, my agreement with his point at view has nothing to do with us both being prisoners. I call people on their busted logic all the time around here, and I would have just as quickly disagreed with him had he written from another point of view. In other words, my opinion is based on factual data and ideology, not my personal opinion about or biases towards the man.

At the risk at maybe misreading his piece and putting words into his mouth, I do not actually think that he was attempting to excuse his conduct. I do not know enough about his case, really, to comment on it. I do know that as a person, he does not come off as the sort to blame others for his actions, I actually think that he was attempting to offer an explanation - which often appears like an excuse, but which is actually quite distinct.

An excuse is an evasion of responsibility; an explanation is integral to understanding ones behavior, which is the first step towards overcoming negative conduct. I actually agree with much of what you wrote, John, and I think that it you knew Robert as I do, this separation between excuse and explanation would have been a bit more apparent. Sometimes, we bloggers attempt to tackle complex issues, and must leave out many useful points and comments for the sake of brevity. Knowing Robert as I do, I have a slightly better vantage point on what he was saying than you do. You did well in explaining that your comment was purely about attitude and not necessarily about Robert's criminal past. I appreciate that, as it proves you are a man capable of subtlety and distinction, qualities sometimes lacking tram certain posters on this site. Your intelligence makes my task here that much simpler.

At any rate, on one end of this debate you have the "free will is king" crowd. In this view, all humans have perfect choice: I come freely to a decision; I analyze my choices, performing a form or risk/reward calculus; when completed, I choose the most rational option and then behavior follows in perfect order. I am, therefore, solely responsible for my behavior. This is a traditional view at human nature, mostly held by conservatives. It has some very old roots, and exploring them would make this an abominably long entry for everyone involved. In short, even before Christianity and Neo-Platonism hopped into bed together, you can find some aspects of this concept in the Greek notion of arete, a code of personal excellence that was mostly based on discipline and freedom of choice. (Though, to be fair, in the beliefs of the day the gods played a pretty active role in human affairs, so it is somewhat debatable how "free" people thought they actually were.) In the Christian worldview, we too are solely responsible for our misdeeds and will one day be solely judged for them. It is not difficult to see why this view is popular. In it, the self is given power over a world that can appear at times very chaotic. We are solipsistic creatures, biologically evolved to think in terms of the "I." We like to think that we are in control, that deep inside of my brain there is a little Thomas sitting in a futuristic-looking cockpit, observing the screens of my eyes and making cool, collected decisions. In short, perfect will is a simple answer to a lot of complex questions about why we act as we do, and pass the power of finality at our fingertips by the easy assignment of blame. (It also happens to be the only available escape hatch for the theists' dilemma over how an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent deity could have created a world infused with so much evil: if tree will isn’t really all that free, then we are not totally responsible for “sin.” If we are actually created broken, and didn’t “choose” to pick a piece of fruit from a certain forbidden tree, to continue the argument, then the entire notion of judgment breaks down, and all you are left with is a capricious tyrant-god playing with robots - exactly what the Calvinists, Muslims, and all other fans of predetermination believe. Such an idea is beyond immoral, and thinking people have long consigned such concepts to the dustbin of history.)

Unfortunately for this view, the notion of a perfectly unrestrained free will has largely been abandoned in the realms of philosophy and science. Certain disciplines - sociology and social psychology, for instance - have given us quantifiable proof of the power at other people to affect our behavior. Even though much of this data has not totally permeated the layman's zeitgeist, I think we all know that social forces impress upon us. Think of popular trends. Think of the sometimes bizarre world of fashion. Remember parachute pants? How about skinny jeans? During my (freeworld) college years, I was ... uh, let's take the high road here and just go with "enthusiastic" about the female sex. My concept oft what I feel defines a "hot" woman, however, is drastically different from, say, the Victorians, or Renoir, or Giotto. This is not to say that there are not still some men who prefer the "Rubenesque" look, but it is clear that each era's concept of seemingly concrete concepts like beauty and morality evolved over time. Many of the "moral truths" that theists hold to today were actually considered highly immoral by followers of that same religion in the not too distant past. For instance, the Bible clearly permits the practice of slavery. Our nation actually fought a war over the issue of a right to own other people, and the South was entirely anchored by what they saw as god's permission for this view. Nowadays, few people are proponents of this practice. The power of the group superceded upon an "eternal" dictate, and most Christians today at least have the good graces to pretend that unfortunate and uncomfortable passages like these do not exist. One can see a similar process in Dr Martin Luther King, Jr's strategy for the civil rights movement, and also today in the push for gay equality. The opinions of individuals are being modified by the collective.

It can be a little disturbing to recognize just how much control the situation and the other can have on us. You don’t want to be told that the reason you likely married someone of the same race and socioeconomic background as yourself has to do with social forces, instead of "true love." This feeling of discomfort gets even worse when you step outside of "common sense" examples (like those listed above) into the nitty-gritty world of sociological research. A few common, small-scale examples may help me prove this point.

Have you ever seen a news story, where video of a mugging shows a large group of bystanders just standing there, doing nothing? What a bunch of assholes, we think. Surely, we would have stepped up and helped that poor lady! Unlike those jerks, my moral code is strong. Darley and Latane (1968) were not satisfied with the traditional reasons for why these events are so common, and decided to run some studies on this phenomenon. Their findings shed some light on this seemingly cowardly pack of eyewitnesses. They found that the more bystanders there are, the lower the probability that anyone will intervene. Single eyewitnesses usually did assist the victim, but when a group was involved, responsibility or action diffused out amongst the crowd, getting weaker as the numbers increase. No single individual feels responsible enough to respond. The power of the group trumped individual moral codes.

Pfft, whatever, you may say. I would have acted. Fair enough. Occasionally, you do find heroes who push through this diffusion, and maybe you really are one of them. Chances are, you have never witnessed a mugging, or ever will, so the point is an academic one. Lets find one which is a bit more common.

Pretend that you are driving down a country road. You look in your rear view, and see a pick-up truck quickly approaching. As this vehicle overtakes you, you get a quick glimpse of a teenage driver at the wheel. He quickly disappears around a bend, and is soon out of sight. A few minutes later, you see this same truck on the side of the road in a ditch, smoking. Would you stop to render aid? Of course you would. Most of us would feel compelled to pull over. That is another human being in trouble, after all. Now, take this same event, and transpose it onto a busy freeway at 5PM. Seeing this driver wreck into a concrete embankment, would you pull over? Most likely, you would not, in exactly the same way that you did not stop this very afternoon when you passed that vehicle on the freeway with a flat tire. What changed, from the country road example to the highway one? Certainly not your "immutable" moral code, right? Of course not. The context was merely altered. The power of the situation defined what was right for you. (Let that thought sink in for a moment, John, but note that I am not implying that morality is subjective, merely that our appropriate behavior is often relative to the situation.

Another experiment, this time by Darley and Benson (1973) takes further aim at this same concept. They divided some seminary students into two groups. They led these groups, independently, down the same stretch of urban street. They were all under the impression that they were on their way to give a short speech. The first group was told that they were running terribly late, and must hurry. As they moved towards their destination, each passed a groaning man slumped in a doorway. Only ten percent of this first group stopped to render aid. Since one would presume that seminary students would be fairly "moral" people, this seems a rather pathetic showing (especially when they had to have been well-versed in the parable of the Good Samaritan). The second group was led past this same man, only they were not told that they were in a rush. As a result, more than 50% of these students stopped to assist the fallen man. I know that we all like to think that our moral characters are objects as solid as a treadstone, but the moral and religious convictions at these students mattered very little when confronted by social forces. How many times have we refrained from doing what is right, because we were late for work, or tired from a long day? Right and wrong appear simple concepts from afar. When enmeshed in the heady flow of life, they are easy to lose track of.

You probably know what socialization means. Any time you move to a new job, you must socialize to the way business is done in that office. This is a sort of process where you learn the formal and informal rules of existence in a group, how to "fit in." In the penal world, there is a large body of work on this matter, and we even get our own fancy term for the process: prisonization. This label was first applied by Clemmer in 1958 and it has stuck around for decades in the literature. As in most complex topics, there has been some bickering over what exactly this word means, and also how the process actually works. All that complex stuff to the side, I generally use the term as a rough synonym for assimilation, as in the process that immigrants go through when they move to a new culture. Basically, prisonization is the degree to which an inmate absorbs the customs, mores, folkways, and general culture of the penitentiary. Ultimately, this is all about how well ones particular puzzle piece fits into the world around you.

What is not up for debate is that some inmates socialize to greater degrees than others. In an ideal world, the penal atmosphere would be designed to produce real positive change in those who are kept behind its walls. In that situation, a high degree of socialization would be a good thing. But in the real world of Texas prisons, we all know that this is not the case. It did not take me long to realize that this place represented virtually everything that I wanted to avoid. My first experience with the police involved several members of Mexico's Agencia Federal de Investigacion (Mexico's version of the FBI, if the FBI were run by General Franco) playing whack-a-mole with my face, and it didn’t get much better from there, especially with the inmates. What I mean by all of this is that I have seen with my own eyes the forces Robert was talking about. The pressures to act a certain way, to speak in a certain argot, to think like a "convict" are intense. I know that even I have not always escaped unscathed, and I am always in defense mode for this exact type of intrusion. There are many times each week where I pause mid-thought and simply say, "now where the devil did that come from?" I desire to believe that I am in control, but all too often I realize that I am a passenger in my own body.

I hope that I have proven to you that, at least some of the time, we are not as "free" as we think we are. It is a large jump from this admission to applying this knowledge to the criminal justice system, though. Deviance needs to be controlled. You wont find me advocating for the total destruction of the prison system, now or in past blogs. Indeed, I think you would be hard pressed to find another convict blogger who is so relentlessly brutal with himself, and you only see the tiniest fraction of the extent of this online. What I do advocate is using sociological research to improve the character of offenders already enmeshed within the TDCJ system. Why? Because the power of the group does not have to be negative. We can use these same techniques to make people better. I know. I have used them on myself.

Now, take Robert. As I said before, I do not actually know the exact circumstances surrounding his crimes. If I remember correctly, his older brother and father were both sent to prison for life for the same offense that sent him to prison for 99 years at the age of 15. This would tend to indicate that there is at least some dif fusion of guilt for this initial murder amongst three people, and this further indicates that he should not have been sent to TDCJ for anywhere close to that amount at time at that tender age. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to read a really fascinating book on juvenile rehabilitation, and recently I had the pleasure of reading it again. The book in question - which I highly recommend - is John Hubner's Last Chance in Texas. This work details one of the most progressive juvenile prison camps in the country, the Giddings State School in Giddings, Texas. Giddings gets the "worst of the worst:" the murderers, the rapists, the armed robbers. There is a highly structured system of "phase," or program level, that "students" must progress through, or else they are sent to prison or other TYC facilities. If these kids socialize well to the institution, many are eventually placed in the elite Capital Offenders Group. If they pass this very intensive therapy program, they are paroled to the freeworld. If they fail out (which is a very real possibility), they get sent to the TDCJ to serve out the remainder at their very long sentences. This program is the only shot that many at them will ever get to redeem themselves.

In this book, you see the confluence at the "social forces" and "free will" models. These youngsters are first forced to understand their behavior through a grueling regimen of cognitive redevelopment-style programs, including acting out in drama sessions some of the worst, most atrocious childhoods you can imagine. "Reverting" children like this is so intense that the kids often completely lose themselves in memory, and there is always the risk of what happens it they don’t come back. When I first read this book several years ago, I was amazed to see the counselors (who are PhD trained psychologists and sociologists) using some of the same therapy techniques that I had invented in my own amateur rehab program. The Giddings kids are hammered (in many of the same ways that I hammer myself) over the nine cardinal "thinking errors:" deceiving, downplaying, avoiding, blaming, making excuses, jumping to conclusions, acting helpless, over-reacting, and feeling special. The program is intensely social, recognizing that we are biologically programmed to seek out a group, and in many cases to do whatever is necessary to gain acceptance to that group.

After coming to understand what was done to them as children (sexual molestation, rape, poverty, drugs, violence, parental absence and neglect, anger, etc, etc), these students are then blasted with the teaching that they cannot use these events as an excuse for their crimes. They are shown how they sought what was missing in their lives by using the exact forces that they hated so much. In other words, what is shown by the work done at the Giddings State School is that you cannot even begin to talk about personal responsibility and freedom of choice until the demons of harmful social pressures are excised. Turns out, the idea of these two terms competing on a spectrum is incorrect. What we are actually talking about here is a sequence.

The results are not too far short of miraculous: only 3% of Capital Offenders Group graduates EVER re-offend upon release, and this program has been around for two decades. You will not find a lower recidivism rate anywhere in the nation, especially when you consider that every single one of these kids was labeled as a psychopath or sociopath by prosecutors. Had Robert been allowed to participate in such a program, you would never have seen his writing on this site. He might have been saved. He wasn't because - and this is an extremely uncomfortable but inescapable truth - The Giddings State School has only 360-ish beds. Had our lawmakers doubled down on this sort of proven program instead of grandstanding around in front of the cameras with "Get Tough" bills, we might have 10 or 15 such facilities in this state - and a much smaller prison population. (Not to mention a far smaller group of victims in the freeworld.) Robert is a smart guy, and very loyal to his friends. He might have been your poker buddy, your neighbor, your co-worker. He might be that guy you call when you need to borrow a truck to help you move. He is not, largely due to the fact that certain types of politicians sold you on the notion that there was no point in having hope that 15-year olds can change. Robert was The Other, and we all chose not to care about him.

Sadly, these same failures extend to the world of adult corrections, as well. I will be the first to admit that juvenile offenders are far easier to reform, and money should go to them first. But we cannot forget that the same forces that helped 97% of COG students change their lives for the better also can be used to reform adults. It just takes a little more work. Is it worth it? Depends on whether you want to keep paying more than 50 billion dollars a year to run prisons in this nation. Depends on whether you want to believe in people.

During my time at Fort Bend County Jail, I met a man named Justin H. Technically, I actually met him twice during my 18-month stay in that facility. The first time we were in the same tank together, he was only locked up for a few days, waiting on a holiday to pass before he posted bond. I didn't really connect with him too well the first time we met. About seven months later, he was back in jail, this time waiting on a Bluebird bus to take him into the labyrinth of the TDCJ. The specifics at his legal problems were fairly commonplace. Justin worked for his father, who owned a landscaping company. Justin ran one of the crews, which consisted of 12 or 13 men, I can’t remember which. He had a wife named Christina and a daughter named Abigail. Justin was a mostly responsible guy, a new home-owner. He had one notable vice, which was the three or four times a year he would buy a few grams of cocaine for personal use. Coming home one day from seeing his dealer, he failed to stop completely at the stop sign right in front at his house. A police officer pulled him over for a ticket, right in his own driveway. For some reason, this police officer asked Justin it he could search his car, and for an even stranger reason, Justin acquiesced. All I can say about this is that there was no probable cause, but Justin did not know the law. The cocaine was found, and he was arrested. Subsequent urine analysis showed that his system was clean, so the "driving under the influence" charge was dropped. Perhaps due to the disappointment surrounding this, the ADA in his case got clever (he "got down" in the patois of my world) and busted out a Key map. When he did so, he noticed that Justin's house was only two streets over from a middle school, and –whala! - therefore well within the 1,000 foot "Drug Free Zone" perimeter surrounding all Texas schools. These laws were drafted with the idea of harshly punishing people who chose to sell drugs to kids on playgrounds. A good intention, to my way of thinking. However, like most prosecutors in The Republic of Yeehaw, this guy felt that the spirit of the law was less important than having a high conviction/sentencing rate. Justin's charges were quickly upgraded to a tar more serious felony class. The plea bargaining started at 20 years.

He eventually set led for eight, two days before trial. The conventional jail house "wisdom" stated that since the 3G (aggravated) tag had not been applied to him, he should be out on parole in roughly two years, tops. He gritted his teeth upon hearing this, and said that he would make it. I distinctly remember him talking about how Abi needed him to make it, and how he had no choice, Christina came to see him every visitation day, and I really thought that maybe, just maybe, they would survive this experience. I was so frightfully naive in those days.

Me and Justin still communicate from time to time, through mutual friends. Five years later, he is still behind bars, and just recently got shot down by the parole board for being a "dangerous felon." Justin may end up doing a "serve- all," meaning the entirety of his sentence behind bars. All of this despite the fact that he has never been written up for a single disciplinary case. It’s that "Drug Free Zone" tag, you see. It doesn't come off in the wash.

Let's evaluate this. Justin was busted with just shy of two grams of cocaine. By everyone's admission, this is not an amount large enough to qualify for any sort of “drug dealer” status. True, this is an illegal narcotic, and he should have faced some sanction for this offense. I agree with you there, fair enough. I actually have some sympathy for libertarian views about what the government should or should not be allowed to prohibit in the privacy of my own home, but for the present I will stand with those who believe that some form of punishment was called for. For this error, Justin has lost (so far) half a decade of his life. Christina couldn't handle the separation, and divorced him during his second year of incarceration. She has since remarried. Abi has only ever known her daddy after having to pass through metal detectors; he has never read her a book at bedtime or attended one of her birthday parties. Conservatives - the personal responsibility crowd - have very little that they can say about this, save, well, he did have that cocaine, after all. He shouldn’t have screwed up. We have Laws, and empathizing with Justin would have damaged them. The boys gotta pay. In other words, he is The Other, too, and we don’t have to care about him.

Seeing Justin as one of us, however, produces a very different set of opinions about sanctions. (Evidence for this hypothesis can be seen any time a politician's son or daughter is arrested: suddenly, these same blowhards believe in rehab with every fiber of their being.)

Instead of prison, what if we as a society had sent Justin to a drug treatment facility? (You know, the same facilities that the Texas Legislature is shutting down at present, because Governor Goodhair won’t fricking raise taxes one penny to save programs with decades of proven performance.) Three months of therapy, and he could have returned to his family, with his life skills sharpened and his knowledge base expanded. His father's business would not have had to let 12 (or 13) men go. Justin would still have a wife, and his daughter would not have a stranger for a father. Instead of society paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in costs to supervise this "hardened thug," he would have been paying taxes on his $60,000 a year salary, and contributing to the economy with the rest. You can claim that Justin harmed society with his actions. That is the argument at work here from the law and order crowd. But by any measure of "Social harm," we did more damage to Justin than he did to us. But I haven’t even told you the real tragedy yet. I like Justin. He is one of the few people from those days that has attempted to stay connected to my life. But his letters drip with anger. He didn't reject the prisonization forces. Maybe he didn’t see them coming, maybe he did and didn’t know what to do about it. Whatever the reason, Justin H will probably re-offend at some point. He is just too mad at society to live a peaceful life. He feels everything was stolen from him. That type of thinking violates several of the 9 errors I have branded onto my cerebral cortex, and he should be blamed for this. But we bear some at the blame, too. If he goes out and hurts someone, we have to recognize that we might have short-circuited all of this five years ago.

A few semesters back, I came across a very useful concept to keep in mind, and I still use it often today. The concept is called "the fundamental attribution error." This states that we tend to attribute the cause of behavior in others to stable dispositional factors, rather than situational ones. When someone cuts us oft on the freeway, it is because he IS a jerk, at his core he has deep flaws of character. When we do the exact same thing to others, we blame our mistakes on the tact that we had just worked a 14-hour shift, or had just gotten into a fight with our spouse. We excuse ourselves, because we know the details. Even knowing about this error, I still catch myself thinking that I know enough about someone to judge them. John, try to keep this in mind, when you talk about “wild youth.” To YOU, errors such as egging someone's house or "drunken debauchery" are classified as mischief. They fit that description because of the type of upbringing YOU had, the type of environment you socialized to as a child. Robert's point was that his upbringing was not equivalent to yours. I don't know what horrors he witnessed in his youth, but I do about my old neighbor B-‘s childhood.

B- grew up in a house with a huge number of cousins, uncles, aunts, siblings, “dads” and various other addicts who revolved in and out at a pretty constant rate. His mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and he was getting high on marijuana by the time he was 8. Why? Everyone he knew was doing it. This wasn’t “deviant" to him; it was simply life. Having sex at the age of 10 was normal. Like all kids, he wanted to "belong" to the group that his cousins ran with and so he did what they all did. At the age of 9 he broke his arm playing in an empty barrel - his cousins had coaxed him inside and then rolled him down the stairs. His mother was too high to take him to the hospital - she feared she would be arrested. So she injected him with heroin to calm him down. She eventually took him to the hospital the next day. Whatever you or I or anyone thinks about the word mischief, what B- went through as a child wasn't abnormal to him. It was simply life. We can all wring our hands about such neighborhoods existing in this country, but we all need to grow up and realize that complaining about the “deterioration of family values" is talking over the problem. We've been trying the same tactics since the Reagan administration. It is time to try something else.

John, you make a very valid point about this BGN Joe Ramirez. I've never heard of the man, but I take you at your word about who he is. Sometimes, you do find exceptional people that can overcome upbringings like B-' s. In the Hubner book, this is discussed, and one of the therapists there seems to have zeroed in on the presence of a strong role model being the largest factor in at-risk youth overcoming their circumstances. But keep in mind that finding one General Ramirez out of, what? 500 youth who ended up in prison? 1,000? 5,000? Who knows what the exact statistics are. There are millions of people in this nation behind bars, and a huge chunk of these came from these sorts of backgrounds. Finding one Ramirez doesn’t prove the "personal responsibility is king" argument; it actually proves the exact opposite. Any system that has a success rate of 1/1,000 is an abject, colossal failure. I am glad that there are people like General Ramirez, and that you had a chance to meet him. People like that are an inspiration to me, and bolster my humanist ideas about the potential in all of us. But from a societal point of view, you only know about him precisely because he is such an aberration. The true results of poverty on the crime rate are far more easy to identify than one of the successes.

This is probably one of those entries I should have written a rough draft over. It is never a good idea to try to write something you are passionate about while flying blind. Look, I will be gone fairly soon, and I would like for my time here to have meant something. These people do not want you - the public - to understand this issue. These prisons employ far too many jobs. The ideologies that butress this world are too important for the Right to lose. Toss out fear, and they have little left to motivate you to forget you are actually a human being. My position here gives me a view that you never could have attained, and I am hoping that you can use it for something positive. You see, it’s all connected: your safety and quality of life is intimately tied into the ways that we as a society treat those who are not as good as we are. What we send out returns to us. You want a society that functions well? Drop the hate. Deep-six the fear. Don’t pretend that the experiences you have had in life qualify you to "understand" the experiences of others. The old ways are broken. They are far too simple to explain how the world really works. THERE IS NO OTHER, ONLY US. It’s not about principles. Justin is not a principle. Abi is not a concept. They are people. Robert is a person. So am I. Get that point, and everything changes. If you cannot grasp what I am talking about here, I actually feel sorry for you. I know what it is like to live in that sort of world. If that is the case, then all that is left to me is to use hard numbers: it costs about $40,000 a year to treat someone at the Giddings State School. One would presume that the costs would be roughly equivalent for an adult truly prepared to change. Treatment usually takes three to four years. Supervising someone in general population in the TDCJ costs between roughly $18,000 a year and $50,000, depending on classification. Multiply that times however many years a person gets stuck back here. Calculate those costs upwards of $90,000 a year if the offender is sent to Death Row. If the latter, don't forget the millions of dollars necessary to litigate a capital punishment trial and appeal.

Beyond that, you can't put a price on the lives saved and the lives changed.

If, you know, you care about that sort of thing.


--- ADDITIONAL NOTES ---

Just go buy the BOOK.

To read more about the studies quoted, see:

Darley, J.M., and C.D. Batson. 1973. From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:100-8.

Darley, J.M., and B. Latane. 1968. Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality 8:377- 83.



© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

9 comments:

Andrew said...

Thomas, it's been a looooong time since you wrote something interesting. Increasingly I find myself skimming and scanning your lexiphanic grandiloquence and it causes me to yawn. Just so you know ... Andrew in London

Bernard said...

I was very moved by this article. The baseline is that we are all human and children of a loving snd nurturing God.

What other baseline do we need? I don't care what part is nature and what part is nurture. The spiritual is what I care about.

Men in prison are our brothers. Do you know how HOT it is in there when it's a 100 degree Texas summer. Or food that you can't tell what it is.

I keep wanting to believe that if the average Texan understood the conditions, they would care.

Your article this time was better than others. It might be useful for you to remember that when your readers first encounter a man soley in cyberspace, it might be good to NOT feel like he is all about himself, so to speak. How others were harmed doesn't seem like a usual topic.

Keep it up!!

Bernie from Corpus

Tracey said...

Well Andrew, if you don't like it and it bored you so much, why read it? Why make such a comment? Other people find these postings interesting and I found the information about the Giddings School piqued my attention enough to buy the book. I always like to see positives come from the prison environment, and to see a positive come from Texas even more so.

Ilaria said...

I'm glad Thomas liked the book, even if he already read it before. It seemed interesting, especially because it speaks about our dear old Texas.. ;)

John said...

Hello,

A few notes, I am the John referenced in this piece. Although, I wrote a letter specifically to Mr. Bartlett, there are a few points I would like to address to the audience of mb6 readers.

1. "John, try to keep this in mind, when you talk about “wild youth.” To YOU, errors such as egging someone's house or "drunken debauchery" are classified as mischief. They fit that description because of the type of upbringing YOU had, the type of environment you socialized to as a child. Robert's point was that his upbringing was not equivalent to yours."

I majored in Psychology at Texas A&M. The examples given were just that, examples. I am very aware of the expansive gap in societal stigmas; that what I perceive to be a "wild youth" act may be condoned within a separate environment. That is not to say there is not another set of taboo acts, or mischievous acts within said environment also. The point I was making was to solely prove that murder, under any circumstances, generally would not be applicable to "wild youth." So again, examples.

2. But from a societal point of view, you only know about [Joe Ramirez] precisely because he is such an aberration. The true results of poverty on the crime rate are far more easy to identify than one of the successes.

I "know of him" because he was in the Corps of Cadets and came to a function, and met him on multiple occasions while I was at TAMU when he was only a COL, still active duty. He is vocal about his life story, but when I first met him that was not the first thing out of his mouth, nor an expected conversation. The promotion to BGN, and the placement as the Commandant at TAMU happened most recently. Thus I do not know of him by his successes, I know of him through personal interaction, rather he just happened to be the person I best felt the illustration of my point. Semantics, petty, I know.

Without delving into my personal, or scholastic, knowledge of the issues Thomas addressed, I just wanted to address a couple issues that he addressed me personally on.
However, as I told Thomas in my letter, I will also explain here, the issue of "nature vs. nurture" or "forces of personal responsibility and free will, and the power of social forces" as Thomas put it is a controversial issue that has been "proven" by both sides. We could all go back and forth for weeks. My goal was not to start a slew of arguments justifying either side, or heated responses to a blog. On that same token, I appreciate Thomas' evaluation and respect it, but I will leave the rest alone. Well written, no matter my objections on certain aspects.

admin said...

Just an observation. An explanation is a statement of facts, an excuse contains self serving statements that are not fact.

"Tiny and I never stood a chance."

Urban statistics show that less than .03% of the youth of Harris County were convicted of murder. Yourself and Tiny were convicted of murder during the juvenile explosion, not arson, or burglary, or carjacking...murder.

"In essence, we were conditioned to be criminals."

"Tiny and I never had that opportunity"

"Tiny and I were cheated of our youth."

The length of your sentences may have produced some sense of hoplessness, and it can be argued that the conditions led to the second murders in prison when you were both adults. Your argument does not have any factual basis, making all three of the above statements self serving.

"their kids live sheltered lives in gates communities. Their kids don't face the hurdles kids like Tiny and I did, and when they do find themselves in trouble, no matter how serious the crime, daddy is there to grease the judge’s hand."

Surely you are not suggesting that Texas is corrupt? (snorted my coffee laughing at that) While that may be true, there is no factual evidence to support that statement. What there is factual evidence of? The more wealthy the defendant, the better chances of a resourceful defense.

"we be put to death for the actions of our youth, regardless of the mitigating and extenuating circumstances surrounding our past."

You fail to mention that you are being put to death for crimes you clearly committed as adults. As youths you were both certified as adults for very serious crimes, murder. While I agree that many juveniles during the explosion were certified as adults unnecessarily, for petty crimes, or at best a less serious offense.

"Tiny respectfully asked to be left on F-pod so he could watch one last sunset with me", "Tiny’s request was denied so he refused to move of his own volition."

Is this evidence of maturation? The inability to comply with a negative response? Like a child that has to be scooped up by a parent to be removed from the candy aisle, the team suited up to make sure Tiny complied. Whether I agree or disagree with their decision, the fact remains they said no, and his response was the mature "make me".

My own self serving statements: I don't agree with the death penalty, that does not mean I would want to run into offenders such as yourselves on the streets. At least not until you are old, or in wheelchairs, or effectively little threat to me or other productive members of society. You are in prison and I firmly believe that is where you belong. I don't want you to die Robert, at least not the way the State of Texas wants you to die.

If you remove the self serving statements, you provide an interesting read/explanation, but with those statements, it does read to me like an excuse. "Just sayen"

rykala4 said...

I would like to observe here that Thomas's reference to the possession of cocaine arrest and subsequent incarceration does not contribute to the point he is attempting to make - the circumstances of one's life as the cause of future actions. The fact still remains, as John pointed out, that even the severe of circumstances are not proven by research to be causal to commit murder, either directly or indirectly. This is much more complex as most people realize, and thus I find Thomas' thesis references do not one iota contribute to his argument. There is a concept he omitted to discuss: one that posits we have a cognitive ability that allows us to make choices based on our own understanding and worldview. In other words, context plus temperament plus predispositions and not solely the environment as Thomas argues, contribute to our actions. More simply, it is the choices we make that cause problems for us and not the environment we are born into or live in. And, truly, the question Robert needs to ask himself is whether even in the most problematic of circumstances can we make good choices (in Robert's case, one that would not involve murder but address the issue he was having with that guard?).... Keep on writing Thomas.

Jared said...

Thomas, I'm very glad you mentioned the youth at the Giddings State School. I had the chance to visit last month as a field trip for my PSYC class at A&M. Before entering, our professors told us that these kids were the worst of the worst in the state of Texas. After meeting a few of them, they seemed normal, easy to talk to, and shockingly like me when I was that age. It was hard to believe the awful crimes they had committed at such a young age; it was like a different life. They are truly doing incredible work out there.

JustMe said...

I think, violent behaviour is caused by a lot of reasons and we will probably never find the one cause that makes it all go away if eliminated.
Certainly science prooved beyond a reasonable doubt, that conditioning in early childhood, PTSD caused by abuse and TBI caused by abuse can trigger violent behaviours. Also hopelesness, no perspective and poverty can prone one to a "criminal career" - if you have nothing to lose, you can only win, right, so why not give it a try - you might get away with it.

Does that excuse anything? IMO: No, it doesn`t. We are all born with a sense of right and wrong. And most people who committ violent crimes - except someone with a severe mental illness - know exactly, what they do is wrong.

I just wish, despite the fact, that people, who commit crimes need to be punished, society would take a closer look at its responsibility and drop this horrible, violent attitude of capital punishment.

Does anybody realize, that punish "killing with killing" is the same violent mindset, that pro death penalty folks condemn? Because somebody does something, he´s not supposed to do, you do it too, in that case as punishment, doesn´t make any sense to me.

Thomas mentioned it in his article: people in prison are still people and should be treated as such - despite their guilt.


And - life is not fair as we all know and some people are lucky and get it all together and some aren´t.

We all should ask us, what we can do to prevent violence and try to practise the art of forgiveness.

Forgiveness hast to be earned and does not mean no punishment. It needs a genuine and honest facing the facts on side of the offender and an open, listening mindset on the side of society.

Capital punishmet will never change the rate of crimes, nor prevent people from committing them nor do society a favour.