Saturday, September 3, 2005

civic reintegration in a disaster zone

Amid the reports of misery and lawlessness following hurricane katrina, one can also find civic contributions made by prison inmates. The Reuters pic below shows prisoners who filled 8,000 sandbags (no, that's not cocaine) last Saturday. Today, inmates in Alabama and Mississippi distributed ice and supplies at roadside aid stations.

As with other institutions, the criminal justice system is stretched to the breaking point. In New Orleans, pending criminal case files remain submerged, police officers are resigning and worse, and about 5,000 inmates were herded onto a half-submerged freeway ramp for days. In some jurisdictions, non-violent prisoners have simply been released en masse.

Aside from the desperate conditions in jails and prisons, however, many inmates are eager to load supplies and sandbags for another reason: they know that they can do nothing for their families in this time of crisis. They can't even write a check to the Red Cross. So, many cherish the opportunity to make some positive contribution to others. Tellingly, it is often the inmate elite and trustees who first step up to offer whatever help they can give (and, of course, to get outside for a few hours). In my view, stepping up as a citizen and as a positive force in one's community offers one pathway toward reintegration and away from crime. Some inmates are likely cheering the looters as they watch things break down on television, but many others will be searching desperately for ways to lend a hand. I am certain their work will be needed (and hope it will be valued) in the months of rebuilding to come.

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