Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Deadly Disrespect

Back in the 1970’s, and then again in the early-80’s, I did some work in the county jail through the Service League of San Mateo County. I functioned as a counselor, and liaison, for those who called the institution home. I worked with some of the most violent and predatory prisoners housed at the county level. Men in the process of trial, or waiting to be sent to prison to serve extended sentences. I was a liaison for them and their families and attorneys, and a facilitator for whatever other legal or business dealings they had to conduct from behind bars. I had good relationships with the guards and jail staff, and they regularly passed on requests from the inmates to see me. Jail staff would often, on their own, ask me to stop by and speak to an individual because they felt the person could benefit from some time spent with me. In those cases it was up to me to initiate contact with, and earn the trust of, the individual.

During a portion of that time, following her bank robbery arrest with the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patty Hearst was being housed at the jail. Because of her notoriety, security at the facility was very tight, and access very limited. But I had pretty free reign in the jail, and entree to inmates that, otherwise, could be seen only by their attorneys. I worked with many of the men individually, under pretty intense circumstances, did group counseling in a locked common room with some of the less violent inmates, and personal and spiritual counseling, when requested, with the more violent individuals at their cells. I had special access to those in solitary confinement as well.
These were not your garden variety petty thieves or small-time con artists, but men who had crossed some lines that most of us would never get near in a million years. They were, for the most part, considered to be the unredeemable. One man had murdered his parents, stuffed their bodies under the bed, and continued to sleep on the bed for more than a year before the murders were discovered. Another man raped and killed several women in his shop, hacked up their bodies, stuffed them in 55- gallon barrel drums, and dumped them in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I worked with many killers, con men, and sexual predators. You could not distinguish them from anyone else if you encountered them on the street, or even if you knew them personally. They were unique individuals, like the rest of us, but they all had one thing in common. Anger. Long buried, and deep-seated anger. Rage even. Recipients of psychological, physical or sexual abuse and disrespect, but they never found a way to deal effectively with their anger. Some turned it inward on themselves, but eventually turned it outward into aggression towards others.

I’m not one to excuse violent behavior just because harm may have been inflicted on an individual along the way. But I do understand the psychological damage that can lead to making the wrong decisions. Nevertheless, we are responsible for the decisions we make regardless of the circumstances leading up to them. But what concerns me is that in our culture we throw a lot of time and money at cleaning up circumstances after the fact. Whether it be rehabbing an addict or alcoholic, warehousing a criminal after his crime, or supervising the parolee when he gets out of jail, it all amounts to action ‘after the fact’. But what about the anger and rage that leads to the crimes in the first place? Who does anything about that? We yell and scream about crime prevention, and getting guns off the streets, we throw money at more personal and public security, and at political campaigns that promise those things, but we do not, as a culture, address the issues that breed the anger that provokes the crime.

Disrespect. Personal disrespect. That’s the underlying issue. Parents disrespecting their children, teachers disrespecting their students, women sexualizing themselves to the disrespect of their men, bosses disrespecting their employees, religions disrespecting the intelligence of the people, and governments disrespecting their citizens. Is it any wonder that children grow up to disrespect their parents, students to disrespect their teachers, men to disrespect women, employees to disrespect their bosses, people to disrespect religion, and citizens to disrespect their government?
What about the poor disrespecting the rich? The under-privileged disrespecting the privileged? Minorities disrespecting the majority? Where do you think that anger comes from? Have not the rich always disrespected the poor? The privileged disrespected the under-privileged? Have the majority not always disrespected the minority? Comes from way back. And as the population continues to increase, it’s only going to get worse.

Isn’t it about time that we, as a people, decide to respect others, rather
than continuing to insist, with practiced futility, that we be respected by them?