The Euphemism Crisis

Posted by WiredSisters on July 1st, 2014 filed in College Life, Economics, Health and Medicine, Law, Moral Philosophy, Race, Torture, Uncategorized

On my way from court to my office this morning, I walked past the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It’s a federal jail. Oddly, I can’t recall having any clients incarcerated there, but I did have a couple of clients who worked there. Very interesting ladies, both. Regrettably, they and I never got around to talking about the name of their workplace. “Correctional Center.” I was being really precise when I called it a jail, rather than a prison. Jails are mostly for holding people who are awaiting trial and whom the government does not consider bailable. Federal jails, these days, also hold people awaiting immigration proceedings of various sorts, and a few people serving short sentences for federal misdemeanors. The official name of this particular jail bothers me because none of the above-listed people have been officially determined to be in need of “correction. “ Mostly, they just need to be kept on ice until the government decides what to do with them long-term.

Cook County, Illinois, has its own “Department of Corrections,” which is also a jail, primarily for the purpose of pretrial detention and incarceration of people convicted of misdemeanors and given short (less than a year) sentences. What’s to correct for them?

Then there’s the joint popularly known as St Charles. Officially, it’s a juvenile detention facility. “Detention” is an interesting word, too. To detain someone is to temporarily limit his or her mobility. The animal rights activist who wants to talk to me about adopting a shelter pet may detain me for a few minutes. A bad traffic jam may detain me for a couple of hours. We “detain” undocumented immigrants and criminous juveniles for months or even years. They probably don’t see it in the same light as a talkative cat-lover or a traffic jam.

Before St. Charles was a juvenile detention facility, it was a “reformatory.” Before that, it may have been a “reform school” (haven’t done the research on that yet.) And perhaps, in the beginning, its founders and administrators may actually have hoped to do some reforming. Maybe some of them still do. But the kids “detained” there almost certainly don’t see it that way.

Before there were reformatories and detention centers and correctional institutions, there were penitentiaries. They were (sorry, Lynn) a Quaker invention. The original version (the “Auburn system”) was based on really good religious intentions and utter psychological ignorance. If voluntarily-experienced silence and isolation can cleanse the soul and strengthen the morality of a Quaker, they reasoned, why can’t an involuntary version do the same for criminals? They didn’t know then, and in fact, we are only recently finding out, the pernicious effects of involuntary long-term isolation on mental health. What they were trying to do was bring the inmate to a repentant state of mind. What they got, in all too many cases, was insanity.

The Auburn system was discontinued in the late 18th century, partly because of the mental health problems it created. Solitary confinement for extended periods has more recently reappeared, especially in federal prisons, usually as a punishment for infractions of prison rules (often really trivial ones, such as possession of “contraband”—which can be as inconsequential as a extra pair of socks.) Which has in turn generated a more careful psychological study of its results. The “insanity” that often resulted in the Auburn system has now been more carefully analyzed. See, for instance

It has become clear that “detention facilities” do a lot more than detain, while reformatories do not reform, correctional centers do not correct, and penitentiaries rarely create repentance. On top of that, as we are becoming increasingly aware, the overuse of incarceration and the racial and economic imbalance of the prison population are leading to economic and social problems for the society outside prisons (see, for instance, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow)

Lots of smart well-intentioned people are working on solutions. Logically, the minimum requirement of any institution expected to reform, correct, or induce repentance ought to be that people come out no worse than they went in. The current system fails this test dismally. Many of the suggested alternatives merely set up different ways to sentence criminals, something other than locking them up. But, as a homeless man once remarked to my husband, everybody’s got to be somewhere. These alternatives come in two varieties: the ones that put people back in the communities where they got into trouble in the first place, thereby imposing a serious burden on those communities, given our current patterns of residential segregation. A few communities are likely to produce far more than their fair share of antisocial lawbreakers, and should not be burdened with the responsibility for all of them. Or, alternatively, as the reformers of the early 20th century often proposed, lawbreakers should be moved far away from those communities, perhaps to less densely populated areas where clean air, lush vegetation, gentle wild creatures and god’s open space can heal their troubled souls (Cue the Bambi soundtrack okay, I’m getting carried away here, sorry. That really was what a lot of reformers back then thought. Now we know that the main difference between poor rural areas and poor urban areas is the difference between meth and heroin. And of course, land in any non-poor area is too expensive for the taxpayer to be willing to pay for. Also, sending lawbreakers to places far from their original homes means their families can’t visit them very often, which is hard on both the prisoners and their families. The families, after all, have committed no crime, but if they can’t see their fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers more than once or twice a year, they’re being punished too.)

So here’s an immodest proposal, which we are almost technologically able to implement and which we maybe should be working on: the deep freeze. Cryogenics. Not (as is more often discussed) for rich people with terminal and currently incurable diseases, to be thawed out when we find cures, but for lawbreakers. Most of whom do their major criminal activities between the ages of 16 and 35 or thereabouts. More recent research into the adolescent and just-post-adolescent brain tells us that this is related to the slower development of the parts of the brain governing “executive functions,” impulse control, and anticipation of consequences. It has been a commonplace among criminologists for decades that many criminals “age out” of the criminal life. This brain research probably explains a lot of this phenomenon.

Locking up large numbers of adolescents and just-post-adolescents in one place, even without the selection mechanisms of the criminal law system, is a recipe for rowdiness at best and violence at worst (Animal House, anyone? Rape culture on college campuses? You get the idea.) Dunno about you, gentle reader, but I avoided trouble in college mostly by sheer good luck, some of which consisted of being on an Ivy League campus. The only way to keep troublesome youth off the streets without encouraging them to assault each other is the deep freeze. Assuming (the research hasn’t really looked into this, but it seems reasonable) that normal aging and brain development will continue to occur even at very low temperatures, criminal youth put into cold storage may actually thaw out with fewer violent and criminal tendencies than they went in with, having “aged out” where they couldn’t hurt anybody. Or, at the very least, they will come out no worse than they went in, which is a lot better than the current system can claim.

I am suggesting this, not altogether facetiously, partly because we are running out of money and space to incarcerate people under the current system. Most of the expense and overcrowding is caused by the “frequent flyers.” If one trip through the system would do the job, the system could be reduced by at least 70 or 80%. We are becoming aware that we just can’t keep going at the present rate. But the one thing we are running out of that we haven’t started worrying about yet is


What are we going to call the next generation of lockups? If we can’t call them something like Cryogenic Correctional Centers, there really isn’t much more vocabulary left. We could, I suppose, just name the next generation of joints after some person or place prominently connected with incarceration, as the Brits did with Borstal. How about Gitmo?

Red Emma



One Response to “The Euphemism Crisis”

  1. Sappho Says:

    The Auburn system, indeed, wasn’t one of the better Quaker ideas.