Saturday, May 21, 2005

Rethinking Rabbani’s Reality

"Rethinking Rabbani’s Reality"

I have never liked the taste of boiled iced tea. The lack of sweetness is not the problem. Many drinks that I enjoy (water is at the top of the list) are not sweet. No, it is the shocking and lingering bitterness of how many Americans make their iced tea that always stops me in mid-sip.

Oft times, I tried to do the Yankee tea like some of those nasty liquid “medicines” of my childhood: drink it all down so fast that my taste buds have minimal time to object. 
*Neglecting to remember, of course, that the sensory job of my “buds” is an important “warning system.” However, this tactic has had very, very limited success with boiled tea.


As I have grown older and spent more time in Texas, I have had more encounters with this unpleasant elixir of the North. These encounters have caused me to realize something about human nature: the more a person has to deal with something that is initially repulsive to him/her, the more he/she becomes accustomed to and tolerant of that repulsive something.

Felix Ungars who have to without bathing for too long become accustomed to, tolerant of (albeit begrudgingly) of the smell.

Men and women who do not love their spouses become, after several years of matrimony, accustomed to, tolerant of sharing with the previously unwanted a bed.

All of this (and much more) is the result of one of the most important aspects of human nature that has been virtually instrumental to our species’ survival after many millennia: resiliency via adaptation.

Indeed, it is the ability to “improvise, adapt, and overcome” that has kept us on this planet thriving to the point where we are about to destroy the planet that, thus far, has not been able to destroy us.

When I was little, my father – who was a police officer in Miami for 13 years before his death – took my brothers and I to peek inside of an empty holding cell at the city’s old police headquarters (the site of which is now a shiny new Winn Dixie). The peek lasted only a few seconds but I remember that it was cold, dark, and frightening. I remember the drop in my chest when the awesome, steely thud of the hatch shutting closed was heard – and I was on the outside. It scared the absolute isht out of me and it still does thirty years later.

The “Scared Straight” documentary of the mid-seventies offered the same thesis: the initial shock of incarceration is enough of a deterrent to prevent the normal human being from committing (or recommitting) any jailable offense in the future.

But what happens when you leave a human being - a resilient and adaptable creature, the most resilient and adaptable creature – behind bars for too long? Won’t they “get used to it”? Won’t prison then become something that no longer serves as a deterrent? If so, then are we trying to punish crime or prevent crime?

Whereas I grew up with the logic that appropriately-executed punishment is meant to prevent crime, the above rationale presents them, not as steps in the same process, but as completely different, almost adversarial processes.

Mumia Abu-Jamal asks “why do we call it ‘corrections’?”

I think of the accounts of men and women who spent so much time – too much time – in a “correctional setting” that they became so accustomed – too accustomed – to prison “life” that they were unable to exist in a normal setting outside of jail. Sadly for them, the prison stopped being shocking and, instead, became a normal setting.

I spent years training and licensing foster parents in Miami using, as our primary training tool, the state-required Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting curriculum (designed and copyrighted by the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta). Of the ten “meetings” we conducted for the training of prospective foster, adoptive, and shelter parents, the most popular was meeting number five. This particular meeting’s focus was discipline.

Among the many vital points we covered during this mandatory meeting were (A) the true definition of the “discipline,” (B) proper execution of different behavior modifications, and (C) why certain “punishments” (behavioral “interventions”) that were “fine” and “okay” for “normal, well-adjusted “ people were not appropriate for people with histories of abuse, abandonment, and neglect.

According to the MAPP curriculum, “discipline” is defined as the method to teach a human being how to conduct him/herself in a manner that is socially-appropriate, in a way that will not cause the individual to alienate him/herself from his/her peers. 

There is no mention of “punishment” in the definition of discipline. This is because punishment is not a part of discipline like a heart or a brain is a part of a person. The purpose, the definition of discipline is to educate and motivate a person to do “the right thing.” How one educates and motivates varies. However, it is important to note that rewarding of appropriate behavior and role-modeling of appropriate behavior are, according to MAPP, the two most effective ways of teaching some one to act in a socially-appropriate manner. In short, rewards and role models are the best disciplinary tools.

When rewards and role models do not prevent someone from running afoul of what is socially-appropriate, punishments come into play. Because the MAPP course was designed for foster parents, many of the punishments discussed during the fifth meeting are geared towards juveniles. One punishment discussed is “time-out.” Like the penalty box in hockey, time-out is designed to remove a child from a setting in which the child has made a wrong choice. Recognizing that leaving a person in the same physical and time setting in which a bad decision was made could escalate into more bad decisions, time-out is meant to allow the child in question to take a “time-out” and reflect on the error for the purpose of correcting said error and redeeming him/herself within a reasonable and realistic amount of time.

Because “time-out” is meant to foster better decision-making (and coping mechanisms), it is very important that (A) the child be afforded an appropriate environment free of stressors in which he/she can clearly reflect on errors and develop corrections and (B) then be allowed to redeem him/herself as soon as possible.

The basic standard for determining how long a child should remain in time-out is one minute per each year of the child’s age minus one. The reasoning for this standard is simple: if a child spends too much time in time-out, the child forgets the feelings associated with the error (if not the error itself) and thus the motivation to “do better” is diminished (if not lost altogether). In turn, the disciplinarian will have lost his/her own initiative and nothing positive is learned, nothing positive is gained by either party.

The highly-effective MAPP training (which is used by numerous states nationally and several countries internationally) also emphasizes the need to be always cognizant of the fact that disciplining a child in care is not the same as disciplining a child who has not suffered the clinically-documented trauma of coming into state custody. Many MAPP trainees (and trainers) experienced many punishments (including, but not limited to, corporal punishment) and – for the most part – they are all very well-adjusted as evidenced by their collective socially-appropriate behaviors. But, because differences in variables can – and often do – impact the sum/products of equations, it must be remembered that disciplining an individuals who have not enjoyed certain benefits taken for granted by some strata of our society will not necessarily yield the same socially-appropriate results.

For example, spanking a child or sending that child to bed with no dessert is not typically traumatic in a stable and nurturing environment. The child trusts the caregiver(s) enough to know that he/she/they is/are not trying to kill him/her. A child from an unstable and hostile setting could very easily interpret (and sometimes justifiably) those acts as being sinister and, therefore, unsettling.

In other words, discipline is ineffective if the one being disciplined is fearful and distrustful of the disciplinarian.

Returning the current sentencing practices of the criminal justice system in this country, are we really correcting the socially-inappropriate actions of people convicted of crimes with long sentences or are we creating a population that, via the inherent human instinct to adapt, no longer shocked? Further, if the latter is the case, are we contributing to a cycle of societal dysfunction via the creation of an increasingly institutionalized frame of bestial reference?

Would not a quick, intense intervention (such as the six-week “boot camps” for teens or jail terms measured in months and not years) be just as effective in scaring an offender straight as a splash of cold water in the morning is effective in waking a still drowsy person?

If one were to jump into a cold swimming pool, the shock would likely elicit yells and brief trauma to the central nervous system. If one, however, stayed in the pool, the body would eventually adjust to the change in temperature. The water’s temperature would not change; the person’s body would adjust to the temperature.

When it comes to sentencing, the writer believes that society as a whole is being done an egregious injustice when other human beings are left in the pool too long.

This is not “correction” – it is saturation.