Tag: human rights

Prisons, Prisoners and Governments

The new sentencing-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.

Source: “Cut Sentences for Low-Level Drug Crimes” editorial, New York Times

Last week I finished reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson is a lawyer, living in Alabama and dedicating his working life to helping the innocent and unfairly punished be spared a death in prison. He started with capital punishment cases and broadened his slate to include, among others, juveniles sentenced as adults to die in prison. Often this was under mandatory sentencing laws.

It’s easy for us to read the stories in Stevenson’s book and think about how horrible the USA often is for the underprivileged.

It’s easy because it distracts us from what happens at home.

I first became interested in the concept of incarceration and the fairness of prison sentences a number of years ago. More recently, though, after reading David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, I started to question the validity of incarceration as a means of justice.

Then, as a result of social connections, I was tangentially involved in the campaign to spare the lives of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Later I became a supporter of the Human Rights Law Centre because of the excellent work they continue to do for the rights of Australians and the people Australian governments affect through policy and action.

What I’ve learnt through this time is that we choose to abstract people from the equation. We talk about politicians and police and drunks and drug smugglers as if they are defined by that one role and not every part of themselves.

Myuran Sukumaran was a drug smuggler. But he was also an artist, a son and a brother. When the Indonesian government executed him, he was also a repentant man who lived his life in the service of improving other people and, as a result, the society around his incarcerated life.

So many people in prison now are, arguably, not the people who committed the crime. They are victims of a sad coincidence: They share a body with an idiot who made a mistake.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with the way we seek justice. We send punishments into the future for damaging acts committed in the past – acts that cannot be undone. But we have the power to make the future better by helping those same damaging actors contribute to society rather than just continue to take from it.

From Australia, and while looking at my own governments, I applaud this move by the USA’s government to amend sentencing policy. Over time they have admitted errors made in the past and tried to improve the lives of their citizens.

Maybe, in time, that same opportunity to try to make up for a mistake will be given to people currently cut off from the society they so need to improve.

Your Holiday

My temptation, when people post photos of their holiday in Bali, is to post photos from Kerobokan prison in the comments.

I resist that temptation because I know it's petty and won't change people's thoughts about traveling to Indonesia, it will only change their attitude to having me as a social media friend.

But it was only months ago that we, as a nation outraged with injustice, mourned over the deaths of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

Bali is part of Indonesia and Indonesia behaves appallingly, in terms of global citizenship.

Many countries behave appallingly in this regard. Australia behaves appallingly. The US behaves appallingly. China behaves appallingly.

(I'm searching for dirt on New Zealand, but I think it might be clean.)

Yet, it's travel to Indonesia that sticks in my craw and I'm trying to work out why. Currently my theory rests on the images of paradise-like tranquility yelling to me as a lie about the "real" nature of Indonesia.

But I know that politics, economics and human rights are complicated topics, not likely effected by incidents of individual outrage and wishing the world was fair. I know that people sometimes just want somewhere quiet, warm and pretty to visit, cheaply, with their family. I know that it's easier to lie to ourselves with justifications of our actions than to actually reduce the occasional luxury we work so hard to afford.

Knowing these things don't make it better. They make it worse. Because I also know that nothing is ever improved by taking the easy route and we can't expect other people to work hard to better our world while we choose luxuries over morality.

This makes it worse because I am guilty of the same thing in other parts of my life. I don't go to Indonesia but I support other things, countries, corporations and activities that make the world worse.

I see photos of people's holidays in Bali and they remind me of all the luxuries I should go without in order to make things better for others. They remind me of how other people see the world and I wish I could see that world too, but I know it doesn't exist for me. So I suppose there's envy there too. And to be envious of a thing that repulses me so much causes me more guilt.

Enjoy your holiday. Don't get executed. Never expect justice.