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City of Refuge

Everyone has heard about alternative sentencing. What about alternative incarceration? The debate should be expanded to encompass this issue too.

When people get put in prison the great majority become distrustful, angry and radicalized. It is a symptom of theseemingly arbitrary and unfair nature of the environment. This is clearly counterproductive. Fully 99% of prisoners will, at somepoint, be released into the community. Wouldn't it be more sensible and efficient if prisoners were paroled, not alienated, but fully functioning and contributing members of society?

The unconscionably high recidivism rate conclusively proves that contemporary prisons are an unmigitated failure. They are, for the most part, destructive environs. It is time to consider a different model for incarceration.

Surveys commonly show that citizens are overwhelmingly in support of incarcerating felons. The results of surveys are often superficial, can be misleading (dependent upon how they are structured) and, most importantly, don't tell the whole story. Focus groups, in contrast, are formed to examine individual reasoning for opinions and beliefs; thus, producing erudite commentary.

When focus groups are conducted to get a better understanding of the dynamics for support of incarceration an interesting phenomenon is revealed. The underlying motivations disclose the primary objective is to protect the community by isolating the offender for public safety. The secondary goal is to rehabilitate the prisoner for successful intergration back into the community to meet the prime objective of long-term civil order. Individuals in focus groups understand it is counterproductive to parole angry, alienated prisoners. They also realize prisons can't rehabilitate people; however, they want prisons to facilitate and encourage that with meaningful opportunities.

In the majority of cases a principal cause of offending can be correlated to dysfunctional family units, poor education and poverty. These elements encourage and reward criminal thinking; hence, abnormal behavior. It is learned behavior. That's the key to rehabilitation because learned behavior can be replaced with different behavioral patterns to substitute for the abnormal. The way to restore offenders is to remedy dysfunctional thinking.

The problem with the contemporary prison model is that it does not attend to this chief cause and, contrarily, exacerbates it. Prisons are unique; nowhere in the world will you find similar social dynamics. They are bizarre, aberrant environs. This, obviously, does not assist offenders in learning how to operate normally. Prisons do just the opposite. They encourage, reinforce and reward antisocial behavior. It is, thus, a breeding ground for alienation, anger and crime. Prison social dynamics are counter-productive to the restoration of an offender's psychological composition. It is extremely difficult for all but the most determined and motivated prisoner to change his or her behavior patterns to conform with societal norms while in prison.

Incarceration has a place in the array of punishment alternatives. There are other ways, as opposed to the contemporary prison model, to isolate the offender for public safety without radicalizing and alienating the prisoner. Perhaps it is time to dismiss the obsolete and hoary school of thought that the primary function of incarceration is to punish. It is time to take a more humanistic approach and rearrange the objectives so that isolation and restoration take precedence.

Wouldn't it be more realistic if prisons closely approximated a normal social environ to train, encourage and reward normal behavior? Could this be achieved and still accomplish the main objective of public protection with isolation?

There is a solution to these seemingly incongruent objectives. Civil order and protection can be achieved with isolation and still provide a relatively normal living environment so the offender is not alienated and is encouraged to become a contributing, productive member of the community upon release.

On the Kona Coast of the Island of Hawaii there is a restored ancient village called the "City of Refuge." When this fishing village was inhabited it was a permanent sanctuary for offenders who were at risk of blood revenge. Each of the Hawaiian islands had one or more Cities of Refuge. They were sacred, religous grounds and were governed by a priest. If an offender was able to get within the volcanic rock wall boundary they were safe from retribution. If, however, the offender was caught any time thereafter outside the boundaries the victim or a relative could dispense blood revenge. Offenders were exiled to this fate forlife. What is interesting is that there was less crime within the City of Refuge than in other villages.

These fishing villages were self-contained, self-supporting and functional, receiving no assistance or subsidies. Fishing and farming were the means of support, like other traditional communities. To preserve familial continuity the offender's family could live within the City of Refuge with the offender.

Perhaps we could use this model at a contemporary prison. This concept would satiate all the objectives focus groups have identified and in a priortized manner. A contemporary City of Refuge could encompass all the dynamics of a normal community. There could be a secure perimeter guarded like traditional prisons. Offenders could be vetted for suitability to reside in the community. The prisoner's family could live in the City of Refuge with the offender and come and go with little restriction. Each family would be self-supporting; paying for all necessities like shelter, food and medical expenses. All of the necessary services and goods could be supplied within the confines of the City of Refuge. Prisoners would be held within the city for the duration of their sentence. Offenders could be employed by private industry sited within the city-prison. Family members could be employed therein or in outside communities.

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