How do we know what humanity lies hidden underneath the rags and filth of a mangled life?

A recent article in The Nation described my well-discussed theme about how locking up people with alcohol and drug problems is a waste of money, poor public policy and inhumane. I’ve written about how we should educate prisoners and what books and articles people should read in order to learn more about criminal justice policy. One of my favorite facts is this: in NJ, it costs about $55,000 to incarcerate someone and about $12,000 to treat them in drug court (and drug court gets better results).

I am a fourth generation English teacher and a second generation college professor. For a time, I considered getting a PhD in English in order to pursue a career as a Professor of Shakespeare. Alas, my life took a different direction (that has worked out very well). I still read widely and go to the theater a few times a month. Last summer, I went to see Our Country’s Good at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with my mother’s cousin Anne and her husband Phil.

The play is set in Australia in the 1790’s. The English penal colony has just been set up and the Governor, Captain Phillips, has encouraged 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to work with the prisoners and put on a play for the entertainment of the entire colony. A number of the officers are disgusted by this and have threatened to mutiny. The prisoners are looked on as less than human (some of them are serving seven year terms for stealing food because they were hungry). There is an incredible scene at the beginning of Act II in which Captain Phillips advises Lt. Clark to continue with the play, despite the protests of the other officers.

Phillips: If you break conventions, it’s inevitable you make enemies, Lieutenant. This play irritates them.
Ralph: Yes and I —
Phillips: Socrates irritated the state of Athens and was put to death for it.
Ralph: Sir —
Phillips: Would you want a world without Socrates?
Ralph: Sir —
Philips: In the Meno, one of Plato’s great dialogues, Socrates demonstrates that a slave boy can learn the principles of geometry as well as a gentleman.
Ralph: Ah —
Phillips: In other words, he shows that human beings have an intelligence which has nothing to do with the circumstances into which they are born.

Ralph: Sir —

Phillips: Sit down, Lieutenant. It is a matter of reminding the slave of what he knows, of his own intelligence. And by intelligence you may read goodness, talent, the innate qualities of human beings.

Ralph: I see — Sir

Phillips: When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician. A little more encouragement and he might become an extraordinary mathematician. Who knows? You must see your actors in that light…..How do we know what humanity lies hidden under the rags and filth of a mangled life?

How do we indeed? Americans love the story of a life redeemed. The bad boy (or girl) turned good. We are nation of second chances and third acts. We need to take this approach with those that have a substance abuse problem.