It was a troublesome Facebook post from a conservative talk show host at a Santa Rosa radio station. Promoting an upcoming segment, last week’s post read:
“Former KGO Radio Talk Show Host Bernie Ward, convicted of child pornography seven years ago, is going to be released from federal prison in time for Christmas. Where will he go? Are your children safe? Is he truly rehabilitated as he claims?”
In some 100 comments, most called Ward, who was politically liberal, all sorts of vile names in the firm conviction that “There is NO rehab for these kinds of animals!”
When exchanges between Ward’s maligners and a defender became heated, the Santa Rosa host, Melanie Morgan, warned that those engaging in “personal attacks, gross distortions … hateful diatribes or mean-spirited discussions” would be banned from her Facebook page and the radio station’s website.
As if her promotional tease isn’t a diatribe, personal attack or gross distortion by way of rhetorical wordplay? Why focus only on Ward? Are no other “threats” being released in time for Christmas?
I carry no water for Ward and bear no malice toward Morgan, but as a talk show host myself and a news consumer, I’ve always loathed such hyperbole. It dominates cable news as well as talk radio, audaciously playing to our worst emotions and fostering precisely the attitude that put us into the state prison mess we still face today.
In the 1980s, we decided our prisons should punish rather than rehabilitate. The inmate population quickly jumped from 20,000, where it had been since the 1960s, to some 170,000 at its height. The correctional workforce grew from 2,600 to 45,000, and with it, union clout and political influence that contributed millions of dollars to support punitive measures that lengthened sentences.
At the same time, once-great vocational programs that trained inmates to be butchers, landscapers and carpenters were largely shuttered. Today, just 10 percent of Folsom State Prison inmates can participate in what’s left of that institution’s vocational efforts. One reason California’s recidivism rate is 61 percent while the national average is only 40 percent may be that we became so obsessed with keeping people in prison we stopped supporting creative ways to enable a productive life once they got out.
“I do not regret and don’t feel it necessary to defend a news story that asks those questions,” Morgan told me in a spirited but friendly conversation. “They’re valid questions that society needs to consider.”
To me, though, the way they’re asked and the emotions they elicit only exacerbate the difficulties of reintegration. “Incarcerated people are constantly being dehumanized in the public’s imagination,” Jody Lewen, executive director of San Quentin’s Prison University Project, told me. “Sex offenders are the extreme end of that dehumanization spectrum.”
Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that restrictions in 2012’s Proposition 35 infringed on the free speech rights of registered sex offenders to communicate on the Internet. The plaintiffs had completed their sentences decades ago – decades, because, you know, sex offenders can never be rehabilitated.
Anyone empathizing with ex-cons wanting to start a new life, however, faces vilification. “I talk to staffers in Sacramento who say, ‘Our member understands this or that,’ but they’re afraid to say something for fear of offending constituents, and end up producing or supporting legislation that’s utterly counterproductive,” Lewen said.
Thus, lawmakers, fearful of losing their jobs, are held hostage by public fear fueled by a media constantly and provocatively overwhelming us with images and warnings that, while generating ratings, also make things feel worse than they actually are.
“I would encourage you to acknowledge that fear,” Lewen tells me.
I do. The fear and anger are understandable, and they are good motivators, but they are not good decision-makers.
Bernie Ward was convicted on one count – online distribution of child pornography. He was never charged, let alone accused, of molesting any children. Morgan’s questions are typical among the staunchly partisan, many of whom claim affinity for the Christian value of forgiveness, which lies at the heart of the gospel. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Why, then, the vitriol and Old Testament retribution? Should we never trust ex-cons who have served their time, been deemed by professionals to be rehabilitated, and who hope to be productive members of society?
That’s our system, no more or no less binding than that of a grand jury finding insufficient evidence to indict. Ward paid his debt. Why isn’t that enough?
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.