Friday, May 13, 2005

 

Crime definitely pays - for right wing politicians and their media handmaidens

We can be rational and effective or we can be irrational and ineffective. Unfortunately, we all know which way America has chosen. (And to think this country used to have a reputation for being pragmatic and practical.)
Unlocking the Prison Within

“Illiteracy is a prison. Education is my way of tearing down the walls, my liberation, a journey to other worlds." These words, strongly metaphoric in their imagery, are spoken softly by a man named Sammi in a place where you would least expect poetry: the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. Sammi is, in fact, serving a 98-year sentence for first degree murder. And yet, behind the walls of the oldest continuously operating prison in America, Sammi has achieved a sense of personal freedom he has never experienced before - by learning how to read and sharing that gift with other inmates.

Sammi and Nathaniel, another convicted murderer he is tutoring, are two of the central subjects in "How Do You Spell Murder," produced by Academy-Award winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond. The documentary explores the relationship between illiteracy and crime.

The Raymonds' work has taken them to four war zones around the world, from Belfast to Bosnia, and into the worst inner city neighborhoods around the United States. "I used to look back and say to myself, what were we thinking," says Susan Raymond. "We had a young child but we were both young, and we wanted to chase our careers and have the life experience. But to have both parents in a helicopter, both parents covering a bomb scene. I just say thank God we made it."

Susan is the narrator, producer, writer, and director half of the husband-wife team, based outside Philadelphia, who rank among the most influential and distinguished independent documentary producers and directors. Their "young child," a son, is now 16 years old. Susan and Alan Raymond have been working together for more than 30 years. They made their mark in the documentary field with the 1973 PBS cinema verite series "An American Family," which captures the daily life of the Loud family, foreshadowing America's rising divorce rate and the emergence of the gay liberation movement.

In 1994 they won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary for "Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," a film that depicts the life of an inner-city elementary school and in the process chronicles the deterioration of the nation's public school system.

"Once you've won an Academy Award," says Alan Raymond, who does the producing and the shooting, "you realize you don't have to spend your life dreaming of getting one. It's wonderful. It gives you a certain imprimatur. We live in a very competitive field now in television where editors are inundated with shows. It's hard to get a major review or feature article, so the award gives you a certain credibility."

They specialize in long-form storytelling, focusing on social issue documentaries an hour or more in length. "Our basic hope is that our work will affect public opinion," says Susan. Telling the story of the link between crime and the numbers of prisoners who are functionally illiterate, often because of a learning disability, was a natural choice for a couple committed to social change. Making "How Do You Spell Murder?" became especially pressing for the Raymonds when they discovered the L.I.F.E. program at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and found out that as many as 75 percent of the prisoners there are considered illiterate.

"A film like this is a reference for prison groups," says Susan. "The tape is being used by educators and researchers. We know it's being passed around to people who write legislation. Of course on the other side there are the victims' rights groups who have aligned themselves with the conservatives. These days there's a lot more sympathy out there for the victim than the criminal who doesn't know how to read."

Her husband concurs. "The link between illiteracy and crime is an important societal issue that no one wants to address. Our film first aired on Cinemax Reel Life on September 24, 2002. When we went to do the publicity and press, very few writers wanted to touch the subject. It was very chilling to see that there was no sympathy for that population." He points out that it's a very conservative time in the state and federal prison system, when less than one percent of state and federal prison budgets is used for prisoner education. "And yet this is while every study shows that education is the best way to rehabilitate, the best way to prevent recidivism."

"Learning to read is a basic human right," says Susan. "It borders on criminal behavior on the part of society to deny that right to some, and that's why we believe it's a human rights violation. Prisons don't put effort into rehabilitation. None of that prison time has been used productively to prepare the inmates for real life."
A basic notion that demagogic politicians, hyperventilating right wing radio talk show hosts, and macho assholes (the kind you see staggering around drunkenly outside some prisons on the night of an execution, baying bravely as if they are about to slay the prisoner themselves in single combat) seem incapable of grasping is that we treat prisoners humanely not simply for their sake but also for ours. A society that takes out its anger about crime on criminals simply because it can is a deeply sick society. That pretty much all of human history has demonstrated this sickness is no excuse.

I know the argument, why should my tax dollars go to give some vicious thug a free education? Well, why shouldn't it? If it will keep him from committing crimes in the future? Is that not a wise investment?

But the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys and Michael Savages of the world - to say nothing of the Dobsons and Robertsons and conservative "Lawnorder" Republicans - will eat you for breakfast if you try to make that argument. "Willie" Horton (he never called himself that, you know, nor did anyone else before Lee Atwater) worked. The public wants and needs monsters. The press and the politicians are happy to feed that fear. Effective solutions against crime definitely do not fit their bill.
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