Voices of America
Stephen A. Carter (10/17/2009)

Carter
Usually in August, when members of the U.S. Congress return home to the amber waves of grain, majestic purple mountains and other icons in their districts, the requisite town hall meetings are akin to visiting grumpy, but otherwise tolerable, relatives.

Not so this year. With both houses of Congress finally summoning the courage to address national healthcare, the town hall meetings — for those brave enough to hold them — have become forums for shouting obscenities and threats at the representatives of democracy.

Watching the news coverage of the gatherings is a reminder of our need for a forum to express our opinions. However, the future of opinionated folks gathered in a government-provided community center to shout at each other may be on the wane. We now have the blogosphere where, evidently, one does not have to possess a modicum of intelligence but simply needs to complete a basic keyboarding course to shout an uninformed opinion.

The biggest prison disturbance of this summer at the California Institution for Men in Chino caused considerable damage and serious injuries. Not being familiar with the details, but having some knowledge of the levels of crowding that exist in most California prisons, I was not surprised by the rioting. The Vienna Boys’ Choir could not be held in those conditions of confinement for a weekend without some pushing and shoving.

Recognizing this, the court has spoken and 40,000 inmates could soon go home from California prisons.

Joe Six-Pack

As would be expected, the news from Chino was carried by print and electronic media. An article about segregation in the California prison system and the impact this policy choice may have had on the resulting harm was sent to me by a friend. Reading the article and instant electronic comments suggested that the forum for public discussion has already changed.

A few of the electronic comments provide a sense of the new forum:

Darthfrodo: What the hell. Let’s throw them all together, and add some knives and screwdrivers hey????

Robbob-890782: Love hell. It should be you riot we shoot and kill you. You fight we shoot and kill you. You attack a guard we shoot and kill you. You sneak drugs in we shoot and kill you. You make weapons we shoot and kill you. You belong to a gang we shoot and kill you. That should thin the population and solve the overcrowding issue. It would also keep these useless scumbags in line. They should also do away with all computers and televisions. They are in there for punishment not vacation. Time to give the law-abiding taxpayers a break.

Joe American-611963: No sympathy for these losers. Who really cares if they kill each other off in prison? If they were productive members of society, then they wouldn’t be in prison, would they? Sounds like CA is actually pretty smart. They are having HUGE budget deficit problems and I guess a way to decrease prison population is to desegregate the prisoners. Wow, you mean the liberals actually got something right for a change?

Jeeesus: Blood is thicker than water? These people, no matter what they are, violated someone and broke the Law. The penal institution protocol is to bring these people to their lowest form of character, to make them feel like doo doo. When that happens, people are brought back to primordial ways of hate and prejudice. To mix people and bring extreme psychological duress on a inmate is HORRENDOUSLY EVIL. MAKE NO BONES ABOUT IT. To have riots, overcrowding, filth, etc IS TOTALLY UNAMERICAN and INHUMANE. Sure, there are some in the institution that are ANIMALS and don’t deserve compassion. For the most part, most are nonviolent, petty thieves, etc., and should not be incarcerated, but made to pay 10/100/1000 fold restitution to victims, not the LAW.

Discourse on Corrections

The amazing thing about the electronic age is that I could be watching TV coverage of assembled, mostly uninformed citizens while reading electronic comments from equally uninformed citizens on my laptop.

Perhaps it’s a generational issue, but somehow standing among your neighbors and expressing an opinion seemed to take more courage than the faceless catapulting of one’s arcane comments into cyberspace. However, given the decline in newspaper readership and the rise in online news conveyance, the future of influence may be more about opinion than evidence.

As disturbing as the comments from Darthfrodo, Robbob and Joe American are, their medium has every chance of becoming the future message. The suburban housewife has as much a constitutional right to publicly depict the proposed healthcare legislation as “Nazi policy” as does the Internet blogger to offer a Neolithic Age opinion on incarceration policy.

The right of free expression is not the concern, but the trend toward using the immediacy of the Internet to substitute opinion for evidence on any policy of government is one that will require new fact filters.

A forum of warm bodies in a confined space debating public policy will probably be replaced by the electronic town hall forum that has also been used to solicit public comment. The “speaker’s corner” has been replaced with the ability to broadcast an opinion to millions in a nanosecond.

Journalism in a democratic society should always be based on an ethic of evidence-based reporting. The responsibility of the correctional community is to respond to the shrill voices with facts. Apparently, from just the one example offered in this article, the challenge we are handed is how we can improve our use of the new medium for fact dissemination.

Joining with the other electronic voices, correctional professionals need to improve the use of instantaneous, fact-based information to counter the cacophony of confused opinions that too often silence the truth. This is no easy assignment, but one has only to contemplate how public opinion was used to make us the highest incarcerating nation in the free world. Public meetings will continue to be staged, but the apparent influence of tomorrow will be electronic voices.

We should embrace Voltaire’s comment that “I do not agree with what you have said, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” while simultaneously improving the methods and means of sharing evidenced-based information. Being held accountable for what we have to say should be a requirement regardless of the medium for disseminating the message. Sadly, this is not yet the case.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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