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We Are All Prisoners

By Ed Mead

I was reading the "Impact of Washington's Correctional Institutions on Communities," and found it to be a valuable source of correctional statistics, even if somewhat dated (1988). One particular set of figures was both surprising and important. These have to do with the extent to which our prisons are populated with sex offenders.

The Shelton Corrections Center is made up of 21.9% sex offenders; the Reformatory 26.0%; Twin Rivers 63.3%; S.O.C. 20.7%; McNeil Island 26.4%; Purdy Women's Prison a mere 4.5%; and an understated 16.3% at the Walls (the W.S.P. data covers only rape I & II and statutory rape, but other sex offenses are not included). The overall average number of sex offenders in Washington's prisons was 26.8% in 1988.

But the actual number of sex offenders is probably much higher than the above figures would indicate. First of all, there has been a virtual hysteria in the news media over sex crimes since 1988, one that has resulted in more vigorous enforcement of crimes in this area, the passage of new sex offender laws by the state legislature, a much tougher position against sex offenders by the parole board, adverse rulings by the courts, and generally much longer terms being given out by the judges to men convicted of sex crimes.

Secondly, the 1988 statistics only show those who were actually convicted of sex crimes. The figures do not reflect those who were actually guilty of some sort of sex offense, but who plea-bargained for a lesser charge like burglary or assault. As we all know, a lot of this is goes on.

At least a quarter of our state's prison population is made up of sex offenders. Given recent changes in public attitudes and the effects of the plea negotiation system, we can safely bet that the actual figure is somewhere in the neighborhood of between a third and a half of our populations are down on sex related beefs.

What does all of this mean? Speaking for myself, as a man who loves women and children, I feel as if it is time for some of us to start taking some responsibility in this area. We need to know why this is happening at such alarming rates, and we should also be studying ways to correct the behavior of sex offenders.

I am certainly not suggesting that we adopt the punishment methods of our captors. We all know that punishment merely generates anger that eventually gets taken out on the community. Ideally we would approach sex offenders with understanding and comradeship as a part of our efforts to rectify their behavior. At the same time we would be educating ourselves in the area of sexism. Most prisoners still believe that rape has more to do with the sex than it does power, they do not see rape as an assault against women.

Of course we do not live in an ideal environment. Prisoners are not going to try and understand the rapist, let alone work with him toward his rectification. And even if that was done on the inside, social forces on the outside are so sexist that new crops of sex offenders are increasingly produced. We could never keep up with their growing numbers. To make a serious dent in the problem we would need the means of education and information to be in the hands of the working class, yet the revolution is nowhere in sight.

What I'm really suggesting is that prisoners make a conscious effort to stop discriminating against their fellow captives on the basis of their crimes. I would just like you to stop being one of the punishers.

Why? For two reasons. Firstly, since we are not going to do anything very helpful with the sex offender, we can a least get our boot off his neck so he can help himself. It is quite possible that if it were less risky for sex offenders to be more open about their circumstances the more conscious elements of them could start organizing themselves for change. They are the ones who have to change themselves; we can only give them the room to do so. They need to alter their low self-esteem, sexims and the powerlessness that caused them to try and build themselves up by pushing someone else down.

The second and more important reason for not oppressing sex offenders is that we are in need of them. We cannot make any meaningful progress in our struggle to extend democracy if, at the outset, before we even get started, we allow our ignorant prejudices to alienate us from a whopping third of the population. Anything that divides us t that degree is reactionary, be it by race, by sex, by age, or by offense. We must defend their rights as we would our own. Because if it is them today, tomorrow it will be us.

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