Weeping in the Playtime of Others

Working in a drug treatment center has had a lot of ups and downs. One of the downs is that you become desensitized to other people’s pain and become more concerned about your ability to exercise authority than showing proper compassion. The indifference often leads to cruelty when you feel challenged even by the most innocent of transgressions. If someone doesn’t knock on the door the right way you can feel justified in administering a verbal tongue-lashing that no one should ever have to receive. I have often found myself mystified at how petty I can be.

Weeping in the Playtime of Others was an important book for me to read, because it helped to shatter the “prison guard” mentality in me. Recommended by my Criminology professor, Weeping in the Playtime of Others is a book about the plight and suffering of incarcerated children. Published in 1976, Wooden made public his 3 year investigation into the inner-workings of America’s juvenile penal system across 30 states. At that time he blew the roof off the establishment by exposing the absolutely scandalous conditions incarcerated minors were enduring at the hands of “caretakers.” Wooden minces no words and (rightly) excoriates them as “greed merchants” and “sadists.” Many promises of reform have been made since, but with little effective change and further calls to “get tough” on juvenile crime the book has been republished in a second edition (2000).

The condemnation is fiery for good reason. Wooden gives anecdote after anecdote that tells the grizzly details of abuse and torture. Children would have their limbs plunged into boiling water, be beaten with broom sticks, confined in solitary for weeks, medicated with experimental psychotropic drugs, be sexually abused, and forced to have abortions. One young lady was given unidentified pills and discharged her 3 week old fetus into a tin “pee pot” (a coffee can in a room where there was no plumbing). A boy was making a racket in his steel-made solitary confinement cell (in very hot weather) and was subject to a tear gas bomb being dropped through the window. He is now scarred from severe burns and is certifiably insane.

What is surprising is that over half of these children are not violent offenders. They are kids who ran away from home (from sexual abuse by family and relatives), truants, children abandoned by their parents, children taken away by protective services, or simple orphans. The travesty of our government’s “service” to these children is to dump them into state “training schools,” county jails, and even maximum security prisons. Many of these facilities are simply dedicated to security and control, not treatment or care, and many of the children within their care end up being incarcerated longer than criminals convicted of manslaughter. Spending ten years locked up for skipping school or not having good parents was the norm, not the exception.

How these institutions justify their existence is a problem in of and itself. Built in rural areas, many of the training schools and lockdown facilities employ a large percentage of a small town population. The administrators lobby their state representatives with the support of county judges for exorbitant funding all in the name of “getting tough on crime.” No politician would dare risk going against that popular slogan or threatening the economic vitality of loyal constituents by calling for an investigation of abuses, and if they do find the courage to do so, their censures usually go unheeded. Some facilities that were officially “closed down” still continued to operate on the bill of state budget. All that was needed was for the mess to blow over and it was back to business as usual.

The effect of these legal monstrosities has only served to further inculcate a life of crime and violence in the children they supposedly train. Over 80% of the children institutionalized re-offend and end up incarcerated for long-term sentences as adults. Wooden profiles serial killer Charles Manson who was thoroughly institutionalized before he was 20 years old. His neglectful parents lead him to a life of petty crime that earned him a lengthy stay in boys facilities that exposed him to the macabre and insanity of violent criminal life at a very early age. When he says in his deranged interviews that “you made me this way” there is a grain of truth to what he says. Young teenagers, like Manson, who are sodomized and are given no psychological care usually become persons highly dangerous to society.

A famous psychological study made an experiment where two groups of graduate students were divided into “prisoners” and “guards” to see if violent behavior and attitudes would be easier to entertain. The experiment had to be cut short due to the abuse suffered by the “prisoners” which was happening at the hands of the “guards” at an accelerated process. The point was to show that inhumane treatment is easier to commit when one is given authority to control the life and well-being of another. With untrained personnel exercising authority over vulnerable minors (who have delinquent tendencies of their own) over a long periods of time, the mix is much more volatile than that of well-adjusted and trained graduate students over a couple of weeks.

The great theme in all of this is that in our concerted efforts to confront and weed out the evil in others we often become evil ourselves.

This book was very difficult to read, and left me breathless in both in faith and reason. But I am happy to know that there are places young people can go to get the help they need and I believe I serve at one of those places. Be that as it may, I am challenged to place my authority under a Higher Authority as to be accountable for the way I treat those who have not been dealt a good hand in life. For whatever reason they got that hand, my job is to wipe the tears away from those who weep within our walls—not create more.

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