The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.

andrea

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