02 June 2013

Time Out!

I suppose it's a holdover from childhood. Time out. The "naughty chair." The classroom corner. We use all sorts of things to punish people for their bad behavior. If we're honest, much of that punishment aims to get "those people" out of our sight so we don't have to deal with them.

Recognize this? 

Did you have one of these in your house when you were growing up?

Here's the Puritan version of the Naughty Chair. 

Maybe you had a corner where you spent an impossible amount of time.

"Go to your room!" The words come in a flood of frustration. Nothing else is working, not the firm tone, not the raised voice, not the escalating emotions. Nothing. "Enough already! Go to your room!"

The response? Usually a verbal snarl and a door slammed so harshly that things break. The warring parties retreat to their own territory, muttering over the wrongs, reciting what will happen next, resolving some variation of "You'll be sorry."

"Time out" is a well-worn disciplinary tool. Depending on the expert, it's meant to provide a cooling-off time, or a reordering of strategies. Maybe there will be an acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

It isn't always that clear cut.

For some, "your room" is really a haven. It is a sanctuary, a safe place where the violence is at a distance. It is a buffer zone, a place apart from chaos and rage.

For others, "your room" means being set apart, isolated, "You're not worthy to be among the living."

Most childcare experts will tell you that simply sending a child to her room will not, in itself, create compliant behavior. You have to teach the child what she did wrong. You have to help him gain insight to the causes and consequences of his actions. You have to reassure her that her behavior, not her person, is objectionable. In the best of circumstances, that can happen.

But what happens when you are trying to adjust adult behavior?

We send people to jail and prison and call it "time out." We cross our fingers and hope those convicted will connect the dots and change their behavior.

 And the first prisons? The penitentiaries were meant to use the tool of penance, so an offender was given a room and a Bible and plenty of alone time. No talking. No contact with others. Most went stir crazy.

Prisons went on to a variety of models. How about making people eat and work lock-step, and chained to one another? Or live in a gym with dozens of bunkbeds and not much space? Practical questions have to be considered. When the number of offenders goes up, how do you manage them efficiently? safely? cost-effectively?

Even in prison, there are times when the frustration level reaches a point that someone says, "Enough! Go to your room!" and an inmate gets chained up and hauled off to segregation. He's locked in a small room with no movable parts beyond the button that flushes the toilet. He can't see out the window; it's frosted over. He can look out the door, but there's nothing to see except the officers who check him every half hour and shove the tray of food through the cuff port three times a day.

For an hour a day, she can "exercise" in the concrete yard, by herself, walking a groove into the floor. There's no one to talk to, except the voices in her head.

How long will he stay there? Your guess is as good as his. Sometimes a fixed amount of time, punishment of some specific behavior: ten days, thirty days. More often than not, the stay is indefinite. All that time in solitary and the inmate has to figure out just what behavior is required so he can go back to general population. Solitary confinement has a way of exacerbating mental illness.

Word came in May that Washington state is beginning to shift that approach, training those in solitary confinement how to manage their anger and avoid confrontation. They're beginning to work toward integrating offenders back into general population and from there, back to society. (97% of the people who are currently behind bars will be coming back to the community. What kind of mindset do you want them to have?) Here's the story in The Seattle Times.

Finally, one more thing to consider:


Sherry Peyton said...

Thanks for this Shannon. I have some familiarity with the subject. My senior law school thesis was on the death penalty in Michigan. Michigan did away with it's death penalty early on, and for an interesting reason: life in prison at hard labor with solitary confinement was determined to be infinitely more punishing than death. And prisoners were as you say only given a bible. The trouble with the system, is that within a very few years, most prisoners went mad, forcing the head of the prisons to petition the state legislature to remove the solitary aspect of the punishment to include an hour in the yard with other prisoners. We still have no desire to actually rehabilitate prisoners. We simply warehouse them and then release them to greater criminality. It's such a waste. We lead the world in populations in prison settings. We are such a poor example, aren't we?

Shannon said...

Sherry, my morning reading these days is "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander. It's about the mass incarceration that is our system (if you haven't read it already). It's sobering, to say the least. I'm glad there are people like her and like you who can do the analysis piece. Not my strength. What I bring are the personal stories.

Tamara Swerline said...

Curiously, I have "The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander in my Amazon Wish List! Here in Arizona, we are one of the few states that incarcerate non-violent offenders. We also hire private contractors to build private prisons. All in an attempt to warehouse more lives, more souls. Our own son is serving his second 2.5 sentence and I work for the prison system. It is difficult, at best.

Shannon said...

Tamara, thank you for this. Florence AZ was a familiar postmark for many of the offenders from WA when we were still shipping people out of state. And all I ever heard about the private prisons was bad.

Families get the hardest task, I think. I'll be thinking of you and yours while I'm at work this week.