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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017 - 1:45:37 AM

Prayer and Punishment: Why the Conventional “Wisdom” on Crime is Doing Us No Good
By Joseph Gaskins
Feb 13, 2015 - 1:30:03 PM

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My Tuesday and Thursday mornings are filled with little styrofoam cups of green tea and the half-knowing murmurs of students. I’m teaching again, tasked with convincing young people with little exposure to the social sciences why they should wake up first thing in the morning to hear me lecture about it—the “intro class.” I’ve spent the last two classes proselytizing, preaching for sociology despite my own ambivalence toward the discipline.

One of my last lectures was on the social construction of reality, what we know and how we come to know it. I argued that knowledge exists within a context and that this context is a product of historical economic, social and cultural processes. Furthermore, there are those who narrate our reality, those with greater influence on how we understand our context, that get to speak the loudest, most frequently and with the most legitimacy. In the Bahamian social context, these people are religious leaders, politicians and some business people.

I ended the lecture with clench fists and the lecturer’s boom, “Sociologists busy themselves with creating a body of knowledge that tells us, beyond the dominant stories, how our societies really work. That is what we do!” End scene. Class dismissed. I fall back into exhortations about completing the readings for class and finishing assignments. But is this really what sociologists’ do? Is this the work of the social scientist?

If we come to know the world through a number of overlapping stories that give meaning to the things we see and experience, then as sociologist we have to ask who’s telling those stories, in whose interest do the dominant discourse of who we are, where we are and what is going on operate, and how do these stories affect the way we interact with the world around us and those that share it with us?

We can start with the story about crime in the Bahamas. We have come to understand crime as a kind of social phantom that is spiraling out of control. We’ve come to believe through various proclamations by influential people, like politicians and pastors, that these growing levels of criminal activity are a function of decaying family structures, the absence of fathers, the waning influence of the church, the unsustainable mixing of two diametrically opposed cultures or the presence of “illegals,” and the immorality of this generation of Bahamians in particular, which is fueled by greed, covetousness, entitlement and down right laziness.

We’ve also been told that the purported solutions for stemming the tide of crime are two things: prayer and punishment. We must pray because crime is a symptom of moral slippage, evidence of our movement away from our Christian faith and perhaps even evidence of the absence of God, so disappointed with our sinfulness that he has left these blessed shores. We must punish because deviants are no longer afraid of the law. In fact, we must return to the days of flogging prisoners, or hanging, not only to strike fear in the hearts of would be criminals, but also to make examples of those already incarcerated. And, these two thoroughly Protestant solutions for putting an end to crime are so inextricably intertwined that the Bahamas Christian Council has publicly advocated for the return of the death penalty.

Though, if we are to really get a sense of what we should be doing to combat crime in the Bahamas, perhaps we should try to get as clear a picture as possible of what is causing crime. Who is the Bahamian criminal? Where do they come from and what is their life experience? And, why do they commit crime?

This is not a mystery; in fact faculty and students at the College of the Bahamas have done some fantastic work to help explain the origins of crime and criminal behavior within the Bahamian context.

According to a survey of 336 inmates done by College of the Bahamas faculty in, “Profile of Inmates at HM Fox Hill Prison,” the Bahamian criminal is primarily male, with both parents born in the Bahamas, educated in the public school system having attained between a 10th and 12th grade education. Interestingly, 48% of inmates were expelled from school mostly for fighting or bad behavior, suggesting pre-existing disciplinary concerns. We also know that our criminals are not just a bunch of loafs. Fifty-nine percent of inmates were actually employed at the time of their incarceration with 45% of inmates employed for 1-5 years.

The foreshadowing of criminal activity in the disciplinary problems of students may be a symptom of issues at home. Thirty-one percent of inmates were abused or mistreated, 47% of them by a parent or guardian. Carroll, Fielding, Brennen and Hutcheson argue in their paper, “Rearing Violence in Bahamian Homes,” that children who are abused are at greater risk of poor school performance and of arming themselves with weapons, behavior likely learned in the home. In their work, the authors pull together studies that, “help to paint a picture of activities in children’s homes, and beyond, all of which shed light on the tangled web of violence and highlight links between childhood violence and the associated actions of children both in childhood and adulthood.”

I’m not suggesting a direct causal relationship between criminality and the abuse visited upon children in Bahamian homes; however, as Currie and Tekin make note, the violence children experience at the hands of guardians disrupts the social bonds that prevent most of us from committing crime. In fact, “maltreatment approximately doubles the probability of engaging in many types of crime.” It is not that criminals come from single-parent homes, as some people would argue, but that they come from abusive homes. We are priming our children for violence and the socio-economic environment that we jettison them into doesn’t help either.

According to research done by Michael Stevenson, 40% of respondents indicated that economic reasons were the motivation for their criminal activity. The second most reported reason by inmates was association, followed by drugs and anger. The supernatural came in fourth at 4%, followed by everything from stress and neglect to self-defense and sex. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray but if economic reasons were the primary motivation for criminal activity, perhaps we should give that some consideration as well.

Inmates refer to experiences of absolute-poverty—homelessness, starvation and the inability to provide for basic needs—as well as relative depravation—the desire for material wealth and the respect of the street. Stevenson concludes, what is clear is that “Experiences of relative depravation, in the context of severe inequality in the Bahamas, produces a form of economic reasoning about the cause of crime that should be considered alongside absolute poverty as a significant cause of crime.”

And, how severe is this economic inequality? As Alison Lowe pointed out in the Tribune article, “The Bahamas is Becoming Increasingly Unequally,” data is scarce, but the Bahamas is the most unequal country in the Caribbean. From 1999 onward, in fact, inequality has been growing in the Bahamas with 50% of expenditures consumed by the top 20% of Bahamians while the bottom 20% of Bahamians consume only 5% of expenditures. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, this economic inequality, mixed with a lack of employment opportunities and the effect of poverty on education, are key factors in rising crime rates.

This body of research suggests that we have not been radical enough in addressing crime and that the solutions of prayer and punishment are superficial. Family life, school life and economic conditions are the fire in which our criminal element is forged. Unfortunately, the most influential narratives about crime focus almost exclusively on the criminal, and if our only public policy focus is how best to deal with people once they’ve become criminals we’re already too late.

A comprehensive policy initiative on crime must include an increased focus on social service programs that help to protect children from various forms of abuse in their homes, professional and comprehensive counseling for victims, as well as economic safety nets for families suffering from absolute-poverty. It must move our educational system away from solely punitive responses to misbehavior in schools, and toward rehabilitative measures. Understanding that behavioral problems in schools are not only an indicator for future criminality, but that it can suggest abusive home environments, is key for altering the life paths of troubled children and future criminals.

Lastly, we must begin to have an honest conversation about economic inequality in this country, and that means giving the poorest among us, those with the least power, the chance to tell their stories. This also means deep social science research initiatives to better understand how Bahamian society is organized socio-economically. Politicians and civil servants cannot construct effective public policy on their own—we must give voice to the voiceless and lead with strong empirical and qualitative data.

Prayer and punishment are the dominant narratives now, but its time we ask who these narratives benefit. There is a group of people in Bahamian society that benefits from looking righteous and another that benefits from being tough on crime. Unfortunately, this does nothing for reality of our crime situation, for the abused child who we have a chance to save, or the man trying to provide for his family unable to understand why he hasn’t had the same opportunities as some of those around him. Our options are this: alter our approach or continue to reap the fruits of our shallow solutions and inaction.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology.  Joey  lives in Nassau and is a former part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas, restaurant owner and a principal at the communications and policy consulting firm, The Consortium Group (www.tcgbahamas.com).  You can reach him at  joseph@tcgbahamas.com




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