The accepted attitude toward prisoners seems to be disgust, disdain, even hatred. Compassion for prisoners is seen as contemptible, sinful, an affront to the law abiding and the victims of crimes. But prisoners deserve compassion and respect no less than any other person. I don't mean that a prisoner's crimes deserve respect. Rather, prisoners deserve the respect owed all human beings, the respect owed to siblings whose situation is far worse than ours for reasons impossible to fully grasp. Our compassion is compelled by empathy and the chance of redemption. For the sake of argument, I am assuming that all prisoners are actually guilty of the crimes for which they are imprisoned.
There but for the grace of "god" go I.
We all have evil impulses. We all are capable of crime. We all are capable of violence and deception. True, most of us manage to control the more destructive impulses, but, given a different set of circumstances, who can honestly say "I would never steal or rob or intentionally injure another"? I believe no one can. It is impossible to ever know under what set of circumstances a person commits a crime. Social, familial, chemical influences all may lead up to a fateful decision. Who can say that his or her moral high ground is anything but an accident of education, wealth, or opportunity? Also, every one of us has at some point done something regrettably, even criminally stupid. Maybe through inebriation, jealousy, ambition, shame, or recklessness. Many of us who have never been convicted of crimes have driven drunk, thrown a punch, taken a drug, or stolen money or goods. And even the unrepentant criminal is already in a hell of sorts. A person who does evil deeds may be crippled emotionally or mentally. So that guy in solitary serving 20 years for forcible rape is your brother. Do not foresake him because you loathe his crime. Love him and remember that he is lost and that, at his core, he is the same as you.
I once was lost . . .
Without compassion, we will treat prisoners as less valuable than we the free; as a debased class of not-quite humans. By doing so, we essentially turn our collective backs on them, and say "you may not be admitted into the fullness of society again." Thus, after serving their sentences, many onetime prisoners find themselves living at the fringes of society. Admittedly, a good number of former prisoners are retuning to high-crime areas and situations that encourage further anti-social behavior. But by treating prisoners as degenerate, useless, lowlife, we encourage anti-social behavior. We set up a good guys v. the convicts dichotomy, and the criminal understands that his family are the fellow lawbreakers. As long as there are laws to control undesirable behavior, there will be lawbreakers and these lawbreakers, by breaking a social contract, are put away from society. But we should not then confirm the criminal's hypothesis that he and society are at odds, that he and society just can't get along. Instead, we should work to redeem them, show them that the societal contract is one worth keeping.
I'm not saying that, with a smile and a handshake, a child molester will become a productive member of society. But unless we continue to reach out to that molester and figure out how to reform/redeem/rehabilitate him, we will be left in fear of evil, as if it is somehow external to us, and we will have lost the chance to redeem the evil within ourselves.
So the next time someone starts complaining about how we "coddle" prisoners by allowing them to exercise and watch television, remember that, even if we must put them out of our societal embrace, we need not deny their humanity or impose cruelty for its own sake. Jesus offered compassion and love to criminals. So did Buddha. You should too.