Compelling: “It’s more expensive to do nothing”

Photo: "It's More Expensive To Do Nothing" documentary banner.

Just over a decade ago, I spent a summer volunteering in the women’s facility of the San Francisco County Jail. I led a support group for women and did basic case management work. Most of the women were in for drug offenses, prostitution, or both. Some were in for fighting or stealing. Two women were locked in private cells for attempting to light their mother on fire after stabbing her over 30 times. They were high on methamphetamine at the time.

I interacted with two populations on the jail floors, the inmates and the prison guards. Although I experienced them as two distinct cultures, they nevertheless seemed to share the same understanding of the nature of criminal reform: rather than just “talking the talk,” the reformed criminal was capable of also “walking the walk.” Guards and prisoners alike would nod knowingly when these pat phrases were used to describe an inmate’s likelihood of breaking out of the cycle of continual recidivism that swallowed the potential of most prisoners in the San Francisco County Jail.

In the support group I led, all the women had histories of childhood abuse, neglect, and abandonment. From their stories, I learned their parents had histories of substance abuse, poverty, and depression. Such adverse experiences, especially during childhood, are not limited to women and men in prison, but impact a majority of the American population. In a retrospective study of childhood experiences of over 17,000 adults conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, 23.5% were exposed to alcohol abuse in the home; 18.8% had a family member with a mental illness; 12.5% witnessed their mother being battered; 4.9% had a family member who abused illicit drugs; 3.4% had an incarcerated family member; 11% had experienced psychological abuse; 30.1% were physically abused; and 19.9% were sexually abused. Only one-third of the 17,000 participants in the study had no exposure to adverse childhood experiences while growing up.

What distinguishes people with adverse childhood experiences who end up incarcerated? On the surface, race appeared a significant factor in the SF County Jail. There was only one Caucasian woman in the jail when I was there; the rest of the inmates were either African-American (the vast majority) or Hispanic. I felt the jail reflected the ever-present racism in American society. Not only are dark-skinned people more often profiled as potential criminals, institutional forms of racism have insured the unequal distribution of resources (e.g., education, jobs, housing, health care) that are necessary for living a life without crime.

Another reason some people are more likely to become incarcerated has to do with the potential long-term effects of certain adverse childhood experiences. Mental illness is highly correlated with histories of childhood abuse and neglect. Today, prisons have replaced asylums as the primary institution housing the mentally ill. Furthermore, symptoms often associated with chronic childhood physical abuse are similar to behaviors associated with criminal activity, including affect dysregulation, difficulty with impulse control, a negative self-image, aggressive behavior, and excessive risk-taking. Exposure to violence and aggression in the home is also correlated with substance abuse. Prostitution is associated with histories of childhood sexual abuse as well as substance abuse.

The documentary film, It’s more expensive to do nothing (directed by Alan Swyer and produced by Humane Exposures Films) focuses on the penal justice system in San Diego, CA. It identifies the harsh realities of early childhood adverse experiences as the starting point for a life of crime. From there, the documentary quickly gets even smarter, elaborating how a childhood of abuse would make a life of crime not only likely, but also appealing.

It’s more expensive to do nothing demonstrates how the juvenile justice system and gangs are often the first experience of community for abused or neglected children, ending the sense of isolation that haunts most survivors of abusive and neglectful homes. Yet, It’s more expensive to do nothing goes beyond a portrayal of gangs as stand-ins for lack of family and connection (although it makes this point), to show how a sense of isolation leads to making choices based on the desire to end feelings of alienation and depression, including using drugs—and drug-related crimes are why most people end up in prison in the US.

Although jails and prisons are miserable, for many they are much safer than the streets. There are also pockets of community in these bleak places—beyond the much talked about experience of people learning how to become better criminals (which, of course, is also true). When I volunteered at the jail, Friday mornings were reserved for “hair care,” when women on one of the jail floors were given time and space to style each other’s hair. At the time, I found this odd, especially after witnessing the hostility swirling among the women the other days of the week. After watching It’s more expensive to do nothing, this ritual made sense to me.

It’s more expensive to do nothing interviews researchers who stress the role of emotions and attachment for the kinds of people we become. The documentary highlights how addictions are a primary way people cope with the intense emotional suffering caused by abuse and neglect and why treating addictions must be a central aspect of any reform effort directed towards ending the cycle of recidivism.

Another point the movie stresses was the practice of releasing people from prison with “$200 and a pair of boots.” It’s more expensive to do nothing makes a good case for the absurdity of this practice, which seems in line with a perspective of the role of the justice system as punitive rather than fostering reform. The lack of resources on release from incarceration contributes to the hopelessness that quickly returns so many to doing drugs and committing crimes that support their addictions.

Being released without resources was a point of contention for many of the women at the SF County Jail. Women spoke of having only enough money to go back to the streets, score a high, and then wait to get picked up again by the police. They complained of having only the clothes they arrived with, which meant leaving dressed as a whore, or perhaps covered in dried vomit if a bad drug experience landed them in jail. One women worried she had gained too much weight in prison to even fit in the clothes that waited her departure. Such focus on the flash point of release seriously interferes with making long-term goals towards sobriety and a life without crime.

The women’s sense of victimization was viewed by some of the guards I spoke with as a defense against feeling remorse for their crimes. This sense of victimization was treated as a cognitive distortion that kept the women from taking responsibility for their actions. A punitive approach to justice looks for evidence of personal responsibility and showing remorse as evidence of reform. The guards I spoke with believed that until inmates could stop seeing themselves as victims of their pasts and of the system, they could not become accountable and thus free of the system.

Few inmates were seen as capable of “walking the walk,” and I think this had to do with the idea of selfhood the jail expected the inmates to express as evidence of reform. Understandably, the guards wanted the inmates to learn to become responsible for their actions. However, responsibility can neither be coerced nor can it emerge in isolation. Rather, responsibility arises in relationship with others; it is deeply tied to the human capacity for empathy. We learn empathy when empathy is shown to us.  Thus, if we want inmates to show remorse for their actions, to become reflectively aware of their impact on those around them, we must begin by showing them empathy, listening to their stories, acknowledging their victimhood.  By making space for the old story to be told, we also create opportunities for new positioning in society. It’s more expensive to do nothing grasps this point, and quotes experts who believe the real role of incarceration should be ‘re-parenting people who have not been parented.’

It’s more expensive to do nothing shows why recidivism plagues the punitive approach to criminal behavior. Yet this documentary also addresses the complexity of bringing together two different systems—justice and treatment—and does not waste time judging the failure of a purely punitive approach to crime. Instead, it shares successful examples of treatment and justice working together and getting desired results. It’s more expensive to do nothing makes the case that a justice system cannot be effective without at the same time addressing the long-term psychological impact of adverse childhood experiences, which for most incarcerated people, included addictions.

It’s more expensive to do nothing is a compelling documentary. The film solidly makes the case that reform is not only compassionate, but also a financially wise choice. Below is a trailer from the documentary. You can learn more about the film  (and buy it) at the Humane Exposure’s website. I wish it had been available during my volunteer experience. The film is interesting and a wonderful educational resource. I would have also benefited from its comprehensive understanding of the nature of recidivism as a graduate student in counseling psychology. It’s certainly a film legislators and their constituencies deserve to know about, especially given the film’s focus on California’s SB 618, which in San Diego has set the groundwork for a treatment-based approach to reform that is cost-effective, humane, and gets results.

It’s More Expensive to do Nothing from Humane Exposures on Vimeo.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.