Friday, April 30, 2010

A Modern-Day Prisoner’s Dilemma

It is no surprise that the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord is located near a rotary. For inmates nationwide, incarceration is a loop whose effects they may never escape. A Pew study in 2008 reported “about half of released inmates returning to jail or prison within three years.” This high recidivism rate means more tax dollars will get “locked up” in the prison-industrial complex and our “houses of correction” will not offer any long-term correction.
Recently, I heard several powerful voices speak on behalf of prison reform. Ohio State legal expert Michelle Alexander discussed the issue as it pertains to race relations (her book is titled The New Jim Crow) on Tavis Smiley’s radio program while, ironically, I was in a car driving past MCI-Concord (it may have been a rebroadcast). This week, the “World” TV station broadcast a program about the Dhamma Brothers, inmates at a violent Alabama prison who developed positive behavioral changes after learning Vipassana meditation techniques.
In Alexander’s critique of the American criminal justice system, the concern that resonated most with yours truly is that many criminals are disenfranchised -- temporarily while in jail (which I can understand) or permanently. In 2006, Time magazine reported, “Forty-eight states prohibit current inmates from voting, 36 keep parolees from the polls, 31 exclude probationers, and only two — Vermont and Maine — allow inmates to vote.” The magazine noted that “the impact of these laws still falls disproportionately on poor, minority males.” Permanent exclusion from a public practice of democracy amounts to “piling on” for people who have already done their time.
The Dhamma Brothers film is a way to reach people who may never see get out of prison, and rightly so, since their crimes are heinous. Still, I don’t see why the horrible crimes of inmates should mean that their prisons become a Hobbesian state of anarchy. If meditation teachers want to teach them to be peaceable, it would result in a smoother flow of life in prison, and less stress for the inmates and those who guard them.
Prison reform is a dicey issue for the intelligentsia, whose infatuation with the topic often (a) ignores the anguish of prisoners’ victims and (b) brings further tragedies. (Jack Henry Abbott and former Concord inmate, now incarcerated in Maryland, Willie Horton, for example.) Yet there is a difference between na├»ve optimism for inmates and a more hardheaded hope … adopting time-tested meditation techniques in an unorthodox setting and restoring time-honored rights to those who leave that setting.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Sins of Leviticus


Leviticus Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

What is the right way to respond to outdated and/or offensive ideas about religion? This question came up for me this past weekend, as the Torah portion discussed in synagogue services, Kedoshim, came from the Book of Leviticus and included the infamous anti-gay Chapter 18. Satan and Frank Faust have more to say in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Boston Bike Summit = good idea, but not enough

As environmentalists would tell you, bicycling is good for Mother Earth. But is it good for Father Traffic? In the greater Boston area, not necessarily.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino convened an historic bike safety summit Wednesday at Boston University in the wake of three recent accidents -- one of which claimed the life of a cyclist. A biking bigwig quoted in the Boston Metro attributed the problem to "everyone has this 'me first' attitude," whether they be cyclists, pedestrians or motorists."
Personal and anecdotal experience seems to back this up. A friend who spent about a decade in Columbus, Ohio, reports that cyclists there are more considerate, jingling bells to alert passers-by. Other countries seem to make their cities more amenable to cyclists, such as Copenhagen, site of last year's environmental summit.
I have read pro-bike arguments that say, essentially, increase the number of cyclists and they'll all start following the rules to accommodate each other. I don't think that's entirely true, and neither does the aforementioned bike baron: "It seems like there are more and more cyclists on the road and some of them don't know how to ride safely ... At the same time, motorists have no idea what the rules are."
He may have tapped the real problem about anything traffic-related in the Boston area: Too many people crowding already congested traffic routes. The higher the concentration of motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians on streets, the greater the traffic snarls and frustration. The measures taken by cities -- such as creating too-narrow bike lanes -- seem inadequate. And if the cops go after cyclists as voraciously as they target psychotic Boston drivers, that doesn't seem so good, either ... based on what happened in New York City.
Yes, it would help if people became less self-centered ... if, say, they wouldn't cycle through red lights (which I believe I witnessed again this morning while driving in Cambridge) or ride the wrong way up streets or whiz past pedestrians while rounding corners. But that would mean changing the psyche of an entire metropolitan area, which sounds like a long-term project with headaches of its own.
Maybe the Bike Summit will lead to something good. And maybe I should think about commuting to Columbus and/or Copenhagen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bob Gates: Serpent in Obama's Garden


Gates Cobra Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

Look out, Mr. President ... there's a GOP serpent in your garden ... and as the Iran memo proves, his name is Defense Secretary Bob Gates!
Read more in the latest "The Devil Made Me Blog It."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Palin Gets Cheers, Jeers in Boston


Palin in Boston, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

(sung to the tune of a Beantown anthem)

Palin made her way to Boston Wednesday and gave it everything she got;
Like the tea she brewed, her speech and the mood sure were piping-hot;
It made some folks want to get away...
But Palin just had to go
Where everybody knows her name...
Though they're not all glad she came...
The city of ducks and Scott Brown's truck will never be the same,
Not since Palin showed up and proved she's got game!

Friday, April 2, 2010

J Street "Wrong Way" for Israel, US?


J Street Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

There's a new pro-peace lobbying group -- J Street -- in the field of US-Israeli relations. Will its overall effect -- as an alternative to AIPAC or CUFI -- be good ... or something else? Read more in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!