Monday, June 20, 2011

Allahu Akbar, My Butt


Let's talk prisons, punishment, rehabilitation, and vindictiveness.

Normally with the 108-year-olds, the story tries to force them to pretend that they know some secret to long life. Instead with Brij Bihari Pandey in Lucknow, India, it's all about, "Gee, where do you expect to go to die?"

Apologies to Muslims: The headline is inapt, as he was a Hindu priest, but the stories quote him as saying, "God is great," on his release.

So what does just the latest news of crime and punishment teach us? The very aged, very sick, very feeble Pandey gets humanitarian release...plus garlands from fellow cons...and is lugged like so much naan out of jail by relatives.

Twenty-four years ago, the Hindu monk was one of 16 convicted of killing four to control a religious institution inheritance. That's when he was 84.

Surely vindictive authorities figured he'd die soon and that would be that. Instead, he has become a pain of maintenance. He's been an old, older, oldest convict of increasing infirmity. Bedridden and frequently requiring hospitalization, Pandey inspired the superintendent of the Gorakhpur Jail in Uttar Pradesh to petition for his release. The court OKed that.

The pretense is that this oldest known inmate ever in India was getting a break. It sure looks like the jail officials were looking out for themselves and their budget.

Let us recall the fantasy behind the term penitentiary. That was to be a place for doing penance, for considering and reconsidering your evil deeds and cleansing yourself of them.

Of course instead here as well as in India, that concept has long been turned on its head. Here, we have the greatest percentage of the population in jails and prisons. The throw-away-the-key idea of perpetual and permanent punishment has long replaced the concept of rehabilitation. Likewise, the concept that you can pay a debt to society for a misdeed has become one of heaping on-going restrictions, including records that virtually prevent decent employment.

Assuming that at 84, Monk Pandey was part of a murder conspiracy really, how realistic and just was a life sentence without parole then? Was the octogenarian a Hindu godfather needing to die in prison? Was 10 or 20 or 24 years adequate? As he became increasingly ill and feeble, should that have changed anything...or should the jailer find some humanitarianism just when he figured the old man was about to die? Is society helped by continuing to incarcerate a prisoner at 90 or 100 or 108? Does anyone in charge in the justice and penal systems have compassion?

On the face of it, Pandey's release is just another case of bureaucrats moving their garbage from their place to someone else's. If the barely alive monk is typical of Hindus in believing in reincarnation, what's his next life? If he's truly a villain as the courts and jails might have it, it may be as dung beetle. If he truly has been cleansed and suffered unfairly, it may be as someone grand indeed. If his belief is right and he achieved enough internally, he might even escape the cycle.

He deserves a break. We might meditate on his case and consider what we on the outside get from such punishments.

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