13 August 2006


Whaddaya know. It turns out that David Byrne has a blog. Of course he does, and of course it's pretty good, though I notice that it's a little longer on travelogue than I would have expected.

Here's a bit from an interesting recent post that particularly struck me.

The prison was an expression of Quaker philosophy — that humans are innately good and that it is outside influences that make people lose their way and do bad things. Society, family, bad friends, drugs and drink, movies and cheap novels, comic books…whatever, if you could separate the divine essence from the evil earthly stink and tarnish, the good — being a human’s default mode in this view — would eventually overpower the bad, and voilà! The poor sod has been rehabilitated, with no coercion, torture or even reasoning necessary!

In order to achieve this remarkable effect one had simply to remove the tarnished soul from all — and we mean all — outside influence, and the shine would magically return. All prisoners were therefore in solitary confinement, always. Sorry, no family visits, no friends and no hanging with other prisoners. Rare trips outside the cells necessitated hooded head coverings, like the U.S. does now. Wow. Sounds bad, huh? Yes, the insanity and suicide rate was pretty high. (That sounds like Gitmo, too.)

Well, there was an upside. Part of the enlightened policy demanded that all prisoners be provided with good decent meals, water, toilet facilities, hygiene, heated rooms (this when central heat did not exist) and even fresh air — every cell had a teeny walled-in yard, with walls high enough to prevent views of anything but the sky. Most other prisons were Dickensian cesspools — large rooms, unclean (you can imagine) with every offender thrown in together.

So, on balance, how many, what percentage, actually did better due to the heat, meals and hygiene and how many went bonkers?

Funny how what we now judge to be partially enlightened ideas can now seem almost as wrongheaded and harmful as that which they proposed to replace.

I don't think that future generations will find our current penal system any less batty.

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