Memorializing Manson

Much publicity has been made this week regarding the anniversary of the Charles Manson murders.  Living near to Los Angeles, the coverage has been particularly heavy, but I suspect that the story is appearing in most major areas at least as an item of historical interest and curiosity.  Without a doubt, the murders that occurred 40 years ago are heinous and awful. 

But the question in my mind is, when do you decide that justice has been served?

Several members of Manson’s ‘Family’ are alive and still in prison.  One of his followers – not involved with the 1969 murders but convicted for an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford in 1975 – was released from prison today.  The CNN story does not make any mention of whether or not Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme has made a break with her troubled past.  In a quote from an interview 22 years ago, Fromme appeared to feel that her incarceration was pointless, that her attempt on Ford was a matter of “fate” instead of a proclivity towards violence.

Parole hearings for other members of Manson’s ‘Family’ directly involved with the 1969 murders have always ended with the denial of their parole request.  This despite the fact that at least several of them are described as ‘model prisoners’, and one of them has become an ordained minister. 

These are people who clearly seem to be different from the people they were 40 years ago.  These are people who did a terrible thing at a single point in their lives.  They admit that.  They own that.  They  are not in denial.  And for at least some of them, they repudiate the things they did and believed in the past.  They have moved past them.  I wonder whether there is a point in keeping them in prison for the rest of their lives for that one moment of their life, if they are indeed changed people.

As I think I’ve written about before, our prison system is theoretically imbued with the notion that a person can change.  In other words, prison is not – at least traditionally – described as a permanent form of punishment for someone who has committed a crime. Rather, there has been a strong feeling that prison ought to serve as a means for the rehabilitation of a prisoner.  That through self-improvement and education opportunities during incarceration, and with a lot of time for thought and reflection, a person can be brought to a place where they recognize the errors of their ways, and are equipped to live the rest of their lives differently.

And outside of prison walls, back in the society from which they were removed for their crimes.

Thus, we hear from time to time figures on recidivism – statistics that track how many paroled criminals wind up back in prison again.  A system that doesn’t believe in at least the possibility of reform in an individual would not need to track such statistics.  The expectation would be that of course they would end up back in prison.  The rates are not very encouraging if our goal is – at least in part – to change people’s lives. 

We claim that we believe a person’s life can be changed.  However, we’re also very skeptical.  For example, a lot of folks are skeptical about the conversion of Charles Colson to Christianity as he faced prison time for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.  Some feel that Colson got off easy in terms of prison time in part because of his prominent conversion.  The idea seems to be that punishment needs to be served, time needs to be served – regardless of whether or not the person changes their life (or has their life changed by God).  Colson was viewed as having cheated the system somewhat through his conversion, though being able to link his conversion to his sentencing would be a tricky feat indeed.  And the fact remains that Colson has remained a passionate advocate of his Christian faith and ministering to the incarcerated. 

Is prison simply a punishment, or is it a chance at rehabilitation?  Or is it a mixture of both?  If rehabilitation can occur without prison, would we still want people to do time in jail or prison as punishment, as a deterrent to others? 

The question is interesting.  At first blush, it would seem that what we ought to want is for people to genuinely changed.  If you’re a violent and angry person and you hurt or kill others, the best goal would be that you get the help necessary to change your ways.  You become rehabilitated into a calmer and non-violent person.  Several questions follow from this.

  • Are there limitations to the means by which we accomplish this rehabilitation?  In the interest of the common good, to achieve a good end, are we willing to resort to any means?  Are we willing to go down the path of the treatment of A Clockwork Orange‘s protagonist, Alex? 
  • How do we adequately determine when someone has been rehabilitated?  Behind this question lurks the fear that somebody could fake it – that someone could put on a good enough show of rehabilitation to be released back into society, only to commit further atrocities.
  • Is there enough of a deterrent factor for other potential criminals if the worst thing that happens to someone is that they go to prison or some other sort of institution until they learn to behave themselves?  In other words, what if we aren’t tough enough on crime?  This spawns the question of whether, if people are rehabilitated to better lives without the need for harder ‘punishment’, if the purpose and therefore need of punishment itself begins to atrophy.

Lots of questions, and no clear answers.  People are inherently bad, I believe.  Some people seem to be more bad than others.  Some people can’t or won’t control that badness, and need to be punished, rehabilitated, or both.  Some people can be rehabilitated.  Some can’t. 

But in the case of individuals who have served a long prison sentence (punishment), who not only express but live out changed lives (rehabilitation), is there a point to continuing to keep them in prison?  Are they really serving as a deterrent at this point in the game?  Is there a point where society – as an expression of the values it holds dear – offers the mercy in clemency that the criminal denied to their victims?

Or are some crimes simply too awful to ever allow someone to move on from? 


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