Civil rights group seeks to outlaw prison

The real victims are the prisoners, say activists.

Coming on the heels of a controversial Supreme Court decision ordering the release of thousands of California inmates, a national prisoners’ rights group is urging Congress to abolish prison and immediately grant freedom to all incarcerated.

The group, the Felons’ Rights Initiative for Equality, Non-Discrimination, and Success, or FRIENDS, believes criminals need to be understood rather than convicted and locked up.

“There are always underlying social or personal reasons which motivate an individual to break the law, and it is only fair to view so-called ‘crimes’ in this context,” said Susan Trane, executive director of FRIENDS.

FRIENDS argues that throughout history, efforts should have been made to better tolerate those who break the law, rather than lock them up.  Trane asserts there are a variety of mitigating explanations as to why people commit crimes.

“For example, someone who’s broken the law may have grown up poor, or had low self-esteem, or just broke up with a loved one,” she said.  “These kinds of experiences could drive anyone to commit a crime, and they obviously outweigh any kind of personal responsibility, will power or sense of morality on the part of the afflicted individual.”

“The real victim is not the so-called victim of the so-called criminal, but the so-called criminal him- and/or herself,” she added.

Adam Shore of the Criminal Justice Movement argues that the religious basis of laws makes their enforcement via imprisonment a violation of the separation of church and state.

“Our Western legal system is based on Judeo-Christian values such as the Ten Commandments; thou shalt not murder, steal, etc.  How could the application of these laws, especially to those who don’t believe in God, be constitutional?”

Trane says that ending prisons would free up funds normally reserved for prosecuting criminals and prison maintenance.  The newly available revenue could be used to fight what Trane identifies as the root causes of crime: poverty, anger, inequality, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, hate, capitalism, bad weather, and other factors.  She argues that welfare, food stamps, affirmative action, job placement, growing money on trees, and simply making bad problems disappear would address these issues.

“We would never have crime,” she said, “if we lived in a world without these problems, and this world is possible if we only adopt a more positive approach.”

Another part of the FRIENDS campaign involves special “immersion programs” aimed at assimilating felons back into society upon their release from prison.  Trane labels the current approach to criminal rehabilitation a failure.

“The current mindset holds that the best plan for criminals is to first throw them in jail, then after several years help them become productive citizens by assimilating them back into society,” she said.  But once someone has been in jail for so long, she argues, it becomes much more difficult to re-enter the world.

Trane advocates special mentoring and counseling programs for criminals that help them overcome the root causes which forced them to break the law in the first place.  She would also like to see law-abiding citizens help out through an “Adopt-a-Prisoner” program which allows people to welcome felons into their homes.

“This innovative plan would help felons normalize their lives after such a destructively traumatic experience in prison,” she said.  Trane believes Adopt-A-Prisoner should begin as a voluntary program but become mandatory over time.

So-called “victims’ rights” groups disagree with the mission of FRIENDS.

Calling the proposal an affront to justice, Edward Burle of the Victims’ Alliance Fund said his group will oppose any attempt to introduce criminals back into society.

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