This article was first published in the Idaho Observer. Reprinted with permission from Randal Steen.
When I was sent to prison, the judge mentioned just the length of my sentence. Had he included the entire scope of my punishment, he may have said it differently:
"Mr. Steen, I sentence you to take responsibility for every social ill -- past, present and future. Each time America runs out of foreign enemies, it apparently turns on itself to find more. By way of media, politics and indifference, people who break the law, good law or bad, become those enemies and are then responsible for every social malady. Whether this is logical, you are the culprit.
"You are sentenced to live in a maladaptive, alien environment that defies description. You’ll be stripped of your work skills, your self worth and your humanity while at the same time face the daily threat of assault, rape, false accusations and unjustified punishment. You will live like this for the next 15 years. If you manage to reenter society as a productive person, some will say prison was just what you needed. If not, others will say 'I told you so'.
"Because of counterproductive prison policies, you are sentenced to live in a world of cruelty and indifference that perpetuates the very behavior it purports to alleviate. If you share this with those outside of the prison system, you will be called a liar, most won't believe that $millions are spent on the proliferation of facilities that perpetuate harm, not repair it.
"You are sentenced to consume $150,000 to $600,000 in taxpayer dollars for your prison stay. While lawmakers cite the ever growing cost of incarceration as a public necessity, you will learn that 10% of that amount goes towards your daily needs, while the other 90% pays for a bloated prison bureaucracy immune from any cost benefit analysis. These tax dollars will be siphoned from school programs, child care, and job training -- all of which do make communities healthy and safe and save $millions in the process. Despite the media frenzy that portrays society seething with crime, you'll learn that relatively few prisoners represent a danger to our communities. We're mad at most felons: not scared of them. So, you'll wonder why the majority of prisoners aren't on home arrest, a logical move that would save millions of dollars and obviate the need for more prisons.
"Practical education programs, universally proven to drastically reduce recidivism, will be almost nonexistent. In fact, you will be disciplined for possessing more than 10 books. Therefore, you will live in an environment where recidivism is tacitly encouraged -- a fact not lost on those who want to run prisons for a profit.
"It is true that there are some counseling programs in prison and some people will benefit from them. Yet, if you attempt to describe the futility of a therapeutic environment placed within an atmosphere of people with dehumanizing policies, you will be told that your intentions are distorted and without merit.
"You are sentenced to bear the wrath of a misinformed society. While you're experiencing everything I just said, you will be told how easy you have it. The media will find your Christmas meal more newsworthy than the damage caused by lawmakers who jostle for the next 'get tough' policy at the expense of society's well being. Your privilege to have this once-a-year meal will be presented as so outrageous, a debate will ensue over which 'luxury' to take away next. Politicians will focus on violent sociopaths and pronounce their horrific crimes as a yard slide to measure the innate danger and incorrigibility of all lawbreakers, including you.
"Finally, as perhaps the most perverse component of your sentence, I hereby prohibit society from ever listening to you. Your comments on crime and punishment will be ignored. You, as well as others, will see the big picture, but few will care about the politics of crime and its role in our growing prison population. You will know that most prisoners are guilty of breaking the law, but only a few need to be separated from society. You will know that it is the reporting and sensationalism of crime that has skyrocketed; not crime itself.
"Unfortunately, though, you will one day return to society with firsthand knowledge of our prison system. Few will care. Most see only the door leading into prison -- not the one leading out.
"Therefore, if your opinion ever gets printed in a newspaper, you will not only be perceived as just another lawbreaker unable to accept the consequences of his actions, but of being manipulative as well. Society will know this to be so because you broke the law.
"You are hereby sentenced to be a messenger whose message will be forever perceived as tainted, self serving and disingenuous; regardless of veracity and accuracy.
"No one will believe you. You have been sentenced to be a criminal."