Thursday, March 20, 2008

Our cruel culture: prison prohibits father from visiting dying daughter

As the parent to a young girl, it's impossible to read a story dealing with parenthood and not feel some sort of twinge at the old heart strings. Thus, I'm more affected by the following story than I might have been two years ago. Nevertheless, it's hard to view it as anything other than the product of a culture that increasingly feels no sense of sympathy for those who deserve nothing but care and tenderness.

The facts are simple: a young girl, 10 years old, lies dying of brain cancer in a Nebraska hospital. Her father, meanwhile, is in South Dakota, serving a 4 1/2 year sentence for a drug offense. Leaving aside for a moment the idiocy of prison sentences in our "war on drugs," we are faced with the sad news that the warden of the prison has decided to reject the prisoner's request to be transferred to a prison closer to his daughter so that he might occasionally see her in the final month of her life. That's right: he's not asking to have his sentence commuted or anything of the sort, just that he might be transferred from one prison to another.

Why? Well, the reasons are almost laughably absurd: because the circumstances are "not extraordinary." One wonders what could possibly be more extraordinary or compelling than a child dying of cancer. It's hard to read this story and feel anything other than sheer revulsion at people who could be so heartless--not to the father, although it's cruel to him, too, but to the 10 year old girl facing the last month of her life, and knowing that her father cannot be with her.

What should happen here? Well, it's clear. First, the prison should come to its senses and give this man a chance to see his daughter. Second, the governor of the state, if he has the power, should arrange for a transfer. Thirdly, our beloved President, the man who commuted Scooter Libby's sentence because HIS family had suffered, should intervene to transfer this poor girl's dad to a new prison, one that would allow him the chance to see his daughter.

The most disturbing thing about this story is what it reveals about our culture, one that has developed almost a fetish for seeing "punishment" carried out against people we dislike. Whether it is an innocent man in Guantanamo Bay, kept shackled and isolated for years without even being charged with a crime, or a man being kept apart from his dying daughter, we demand that our systems of justice inflict the most brutal punishments, mental and physical, on prisoners. Why? What possible rehabilitative uses can such punishments serve? Well, none, of course. Keeping this guy away from his daughter will do nothing other than nurture within him a burning rage against society, yet the prison warden keeps his head down and insists on the policy.

It's a shame, an embarrassment, and an outrage.