My colleague Chris Hayes recently hailed Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s admirable crusade against the prison-industrial complex. As Webb mulls how to reform America’s busted, bloated criminal justice system, which currently houses a staggering 25 percent of the world’s prison population, there is a new book he ought to read: Dreams From The Monster Factory, by Sunny Schwartz.
Schwartz is the founder of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP), a restorative justice program based in California that has reduced the recidivism rate among violent inmates by as much as 80 percent. As anyone who reads her book will discover, she hasn’t achieved such results by pretending the prisoners who enroll in the program are choirboys. A Jewish lesbian and feminist, Schwartz makes no effort to excuse the conduct of the rapists, child molesters, gangbangers and murderers who populate California’s prisons and turn up in the pages of her gritty, unflinching book. But she is equally unforgiving of a system that funnels violent offenders through its doors without even trying to instill the one thing that might prevent them from committing more crimes: a sense of accountability and remorse.
There’s no point in trying, conservatives have insisted for years, pillorying liberals who want to waste taxpayer dollars on programs that don’t work. But RSVP does work, and not by dint of some magical formula impossible to replicate. Through a rigorous yet disarmingly simple regimen of education and counseling sessions that exposes inmates to victims’ rights groups, religious leaders and other prisoners who have changed, Schwartz shows how hardened criminals – many of whom are victims of physical violence and sexual abuse themselves – can muster the courage to take responsibility for their actions, to feel remorse, to empathize.
The alternative is what we have: a land dotted with "monster factories" that drain billions of dollars in resources while ensuring that inmates emerge from prison more callous and embittered than before, their mindsets unaltered, their next crime bound, sooner or later, to occur. Sunny Schwartz lost her patience for this system when an inmate who’d been jailed for child molestation pleaded for her to help him before he got out and committed another crime; nothing happened and, two weeks after his release, the man molested a six-year old Nicaraguan girl. For decades, we’ve been told the best and only solution to this problem is to lock people up forever. But this isn’t a solution many states can afford, nor one a society with two million people already festering in its prisons should desire. If the culture wars really are over, or at least receding, Schwartz’s more enlightened approach will get the hearing it richly deserves.