GONZALEZ IMPRISONMENT IS NOT

THE ANSWER SPEECH

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IMPRISONMENT IS NOT THE ANSWER (House of Representatives - December 07, 1995)

[Page: H14210]

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Foley). Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from Texas [Mr. Gonzalez] is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. GONZALEZ. Mr. Speaker, for all of us, this is a holiday season--a time for reflection and renewal. This should most of all be a time to think about possibilities--the possibilities of doing the best we can.

The other day I read a truly grim report: More than a million Americans are in prison . Last year, the rate of growth in prison population was the biggest ever.

Here in the United States, we lock up the biggest percentage of the population of any country in the world. The chances of landing in prison are 8 to 10 times higher here than in other industrial countries. And yet this is a far more dangerous country than most: Violent crime is far worse here than in Canada or Britain or France or Germany. So, clearly, locking people up hasn't made us safer.

In Texas, there are 127,000 people in prison . That's nearly equal to the prison population of the whole United States less than 20 years ago. We also execute more criminals in Texas than in any other State. And yet, I don't think anyone would say that we've turned the corner on crime.

These days, people look at prisons as a way of punishment, and the harsher the better.

Ironically, prisons were invented as a more humane way to treat criminals. Prisons were supposed to replace brutal punishments that left offenders scarred or maimed--punishments that the Constitution calls `cruel and unusual.' The idea was to create a penitentiary. The word `penitentiary' was meant to describe a place where the miscreant would be isolated so that he could think about his offense and become penitent. The offender would spend a great deal of time alone, and be trained in a useful occupation. The idea was, in short, not just to punish, but to rehabilitate offenders.

These days, the 19th century idea of penitentiaries is mostly forgotten. And yet, the best run Federal prison today--the one that costs the least to run, the one where there is the least violence among inmates, and the one where the inmates are least likely to become repeat offenders--is run exactly along the lines of the 19th century idea of prison as a tool of reform and rehabilitation. In other words, we actually can compare a humane prison against a brutal one, and we can see the results: the humane prison is cheaper to run and gets effective results; the brutal prison is more costly and only poisons prisoners and communities alike.

Of course, not everyone can be rehabilitated. But in this season of hope and renewal, we ought to think about the growth of prisons , and ask ourselves why we are pouring more and more resources into a system that clearly does not work.

There was a time when people were jailed if they failed to pay their debts. It was a curious and self-defeating thing: a person obviously could not pay a debt while in jail, so debtors' prisons were a burden on everybody: the creditor didn't get paid, the prisoner couldn't pay, and the local government ended up saddled with jails full of honest folks whose only crime was to be in debt.

This got to be a real problem in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland in the year 1742. So the city's government did a wise thing: they commissioned an artist to write a musical piece, hoping that the resulting concert would raise some money to pay off the debts of some of the people who'd been imprisoned for debt.

The composer who got the job was George F. Handel, and in just 26 days he produced the gigantic oratorio, `The Messiah,' and it was a great hit: the city raised a great deal of money, paid off the debts of a number of prisoners , and freed them.

Today, it's hard to imagine a city council smart enough to commission a concert to raise money to free prisoners . But we should think about the lesson here: surely there is a better thing to do than make a failing system even worse.

After all, you can't quarrel with the results that the city fathers of Edinburgh got for their trouble: `The Messiah' was an instant success, and it freed prisoners and community alike of a terrible situation. What's more, `The Messiah' is the most performed choral work in history.

If you happen to hear `The Messiah' performed this year. remember it was written because a local government wanted to make some money and free some prisoners .

Maybe we can think about it, and come up with ways to free ourselves of the burden of a prison system which produces far more burdens than it does results. The least we can do in this season of hope and renewal is to ask ourselves why it makes sense to have more and harsher prisons , when the evidence is that prisons that try to rehabilitate prisoners , actually do get results, and are safer and cheaper to run.

Shouldn't we think about the possibilities?

[Page: H14211]

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