Opinion writer

The Vera Institute of Justice looks at one very different jail in Idaho:

[M.] Yamada-Anderson contradicts many people’s expectations about jail deputies. She has a college degree in philosophy, was one of Idaho’s first applicants for a license to marry another woman, and sees jail work as akin to being in sales.

“I don’t tell people what to do,” says Yamada-Anderson. “I ask. I convince them it’s to their benefit to do what I ask. They’ve already lost a lot, so I don’t want to take it all from them.” In the dorms, for example, if an inmate stays in her pajamas rather than changing into her jail daytime clothing, Yamada-Anderson will talk to her about how getting dressed makes you feel better about yourself. She and other staff members know that they can’t just order; they need to give reasons for what they ask inmates to do. This is a first step to returning to the community . . .

. . . she has stayed in the job, partly because of positive feedback—like what happens to her at least monthly away from the jail.

“A former inmate will stop me on the street to tell me she’s doing well. Makes me feel good. We help people in a strange way.”

Like other staff members, Yamada-Anderson tells stories of how taking a little extra time to talk with an inmate or even the simple respect that she shows can make a difference for someone going through a rough time in the jail. If she can do a good job on the inside, she figures, maybe the inmate will do better on the outside.

And then there’s Kate Pape, the jail’s social worker.

“The criminal justice piece adds texture to what social workers do. In a jail, people have multiple losses, not as clear as hospital patients who have a presenting illness. It’s more layered. If you’re in jail, something in your life is broken and it’s not always clear what. Your criminal charge doesn’t explain who you are. There’s always a backstory with more depth.”

In jail, people are at their most vulnerable, the lowest point in their lives. Pape tries to remember that “there’s more to a person than the worst he has ever done.”

“We can’t change the whole constellation of planets in their lives. But if we can be one planet that shows care and kindness, that may make a difference. Sometimes, the simple act of getting water for someone can make an impact.”

A few weeks before this interview, she met a man on suicide watch who had been arrested on a parole violation.

“A great big guy, in the yellow uniform [denoting suicide watch]. He said he’d lost all hope. He’d gotten a job, had a girlfriend, was working to see more of his kids and then [the arrest] happened. Made him depressed, frustrated. He wanted to give up, to kill himself. We talked for about half an hour, got around to what he did have to live for, and there was a change in him. By the end of our talk, I felt like he wouldn’t try to kill himself.”

So what motivates her?

“We instill hope.”

There’s much, much more at the link. This is quite a different scene than the jails so bleak that even people arrested for traffic offenses and other petty crimes have tried to kill themselves (and succeeded).

There are a few reasons we incarcerate people who have committed crimes. One reason is to protect society from dangerous people. Another is to rehabilitate people who have gone astray so that they can become productive members of society. The final reason is for retribution — to punish. That last reason isn’t unimportant. But over the past 30 or so years, it has become the predominant reason we incarcerate. It’s why jail and prison officials look the other way when inmates are raped. It’s why people can begin their sentence as low-level, nonviolent offenders and come out violent and radicalized. It’s why we stopped offering Pell grants to prisoners, and why solitary confinement became so ubiquitous.

The thing is, even if you believe retribution should be the primary reason for incarceration, it can often come at the expense of the other two reasons we incarcerate. Humane jails and prisons tend to be both safer and more successful. Prisoners who are given the chance to improve themselves have a much better chance for success once they’re released. That means not only more productive members of society, but also fewer people committing crimes. Of course, we have to keep society, prison guards and other inmates safe from truly dangerous people. But for the rest, and certainly in our jails, less emphasis on retribution and more on redemption would serve us well.