Lisa Hickey, on why the prison system in America just doesn’t add up.
I answered the phone, and it was among the worst kind of news you can get. “Are you the family of Joy Hickey?” “Yes.” She was my mother-in-law. “I’m sorry to be telling you this. But it really doesn’t look like she will be alive too much longer. You should probably get down to the hospital as soon as possible.”
I tracked down my then-husband, and we drove. “I don’t understand it,” he kept saying. “We were just there. She seemed ok.” Joy had been in and out of hospitals for a few months, with congestive heart failure. We visited her daily; she was always alert and conscious. She made jokes with us, chatted up the nurses, smiled whenever we walked in the room, as she did again when we arrived back in the hospital.
We tracked down her doctor and asked him to explain. “She doesn’t seem any different,” we implored. “How can you tell?” The doctor tried to explain as compassionately as possible. “It’s her numbers,” he said levelly. “Every number we measure is in decline. It means her entire system is shutting down. That’s how we know. That’s the only way we know. We look at the numbers.” Mark and I were still in disbelief, still telling Joy stories and watching her eyes light up at our stupid jokes, when the monitors went off, her blood pressure plummeted, and she slipped peaceably into death.
Everyone knows the financial health of a business is measured in the numbers, the reports to the stockholders, the complex series of analytics that determine how long it can stay alive. In some ways, we digitize everything; we step on scales and measure blood pressure in supermarkets. Our students are measured in SAT scores and schools themselves are given numerical rankings with state-wide tests to try to understand the strength of the heartbeat of our educational system. Numbers affect everything we do—what we eat and what we wear, from the size of a pair of pants to calories-per-ounce in a baked potato. The batting averages, our age, and the number of minutes that tick past us in a day. Numbers are such part of our life that we don’t even realize we are measuring when we are measuring.
Understanding how the system of numbers works is our guide to how to navigate the world.
So when it comes to looking at the state of our prison system, I want to look at the numbers. And surely, somewhere in there is the answer to this question: “How do we, as a society, measure bad-ness?”
Why are we not able to measure wrongdoing in the same way we measure intelligence? Why aren’t we better at quantifying it? And why, why, when we dole out punishments, are the numbers so blatantly inconsistent? For the same crime, you might get 30 days, you might get 10 years, you might get executed, or you might walk off scot-free. Why does our otherwise precise system of measurement suddenly fail us, where, it might be argued, it matters most? If numbers can tell us whether someone is going to live or die, pass or fail, be rich or poor, why can’t they give us a fair and equitable measurement of how a person will be punished when he or she commits a crime?
I spent most of my life in Boston, where, on any given street, the pedestrians, cars, and bicycles have a free-for-all. People would jaywalk, pay no attention to walk signs, and cross whenever there was an opening in traffic.
On a visit to California, my tendency was to do the same thing. On a street corner with no cars are coming, I took a step down from the curb. “Wait” my friend says, pulling me back onto the sidewalk. “It’s not a walk light.” Suddenly I am aware that there’s a whole group of people also waiting on the curb, although it’s obvious the coast is clear. I glance at the “Don’t Walk” sign, the crowd on the sidewalk, and my friend. “How did you get the entire state of California to obey the walk signal?” I asked in awe.
Anyone who has spent a decade or more in New York City has seen a similar phenomenon with the “Don’t Block The Box” campaign. When I was growing up just outside the city, gridlock was rampant. I remember seeing commercial after commercial on the television, a public service campaign—overhead shots of the city streets completely clogged, an ambulance unable to get through. From the television set came the sound of a heart monitor fading out, as if the patient had died because the ambulance couldn’t get through an intersection.
“What if the person in the ambulance was your son, your daughter, your mother, your father? You?”
But empathy didn’t do nearly as much to solve the problem of gridlock on the streets of NYC as did a couple of buckets of white paint and a few signs that said “Don’t block the box. FINE + 2 points.” Suddenly, wherever you went, it became crystal clear what you couldn’t do, and exactly what would happen if you did. When I came back to NYC for the first time after a few years, it appeared as if the gridlock problem had been magically solved.
The way that New York City and Los Angeles got people to obey the law was to make the math crystal clear. You block the box, you get a ticket. Two points on your insurance plus $110. There’s no appealing to a jury. There’s no difference in the ticket amount if you are black, white, rich, poor, driving a Dodge or a Cadillac. The math is clear. You calculate the risk of breaking the law, and you instantaneously decide it’s not worth it.
Nobody has asked me to solve the prison problem in America, and if asked, I’d be just as daunted by the prospect as the next person. But if asked how I would think about it, I would do this: I would start by making sure that punishments are fair, just, and equal. I would look at how we use numbers to measure everything — and figure out why we can’t really quantify anything from what a crime really is to how long someone should be locked up for committing one. And I would look at how you can get large groups of people to change their behavior.
One of the reasons I joined the throngs of people who were so upset by the “Too Pretty for Math” t-shirts was not just because of the implication that girls weren’t smart enough for math. It was because of the implication that if you were pretty enough, you didn’t need to understand the omnipresent systems of numbers that we all use to navigate the world.
Math is important not just as a system of measurement. It allows you to turn complicated situations and problems into clear, simple, and logical steps. It’s not a class you need to take in school that you’ll never use again. It’s a way to break down information in a way that’s uniform, consistent and systematic.
Maybe the real outrage over the “Too Pretty For Math” shouldn’t be in the gender wars department. The real outrage should be that there’s a whole group of people in our society that ends up being “Too Poor For Math.” Where are those t-shirts? Where is that protest?
To change our prison system, we should start with two things: 1) Consistent, mathematically sound ways of sentencing so the consequences of illegal actions are clear and fair. 2) A way for people at the lowest ends of our economic spectrum to see that the math can actually work for them also.
Let’s go back to New York City for a second.
If you look at the numbers behind income disparity, you’ll find that the “1%ers”, the ones who took over 40% of the income in New York, are comprised of about 34,000 households. On the other end of that spectrum are those classified by the federal government as living in “deep poverty”—a 4-person family with an income of $10,500 or less. The number of people in New York City living at that level is 900,000, almost 11% of the population.
For just one minute, put yourself in the place of someone who is one of those 900,000. You are a man, a boy, a young adult or a teenager. You’re a provider, you’re helpful, you care about your family. You look at your neighborhood and you can easily count—count the hundreds of people around you, who every day are struggling for the very essence of survival. If you are a child in school, you follow the ongoing subtraction of fellow students as they drop out one by one. You understand intuitively, or maybe you were told, that almost 30% will drop out of high school. The chances of you or one of your friends going to college is less than 8%. You know enough math to get those odds. You sit on a swing set and calculate the time you would need to run from the playground to a safe place if violence broke out. What would be the speed needed to outrun a bullet? You measure the hours, or maybe it’s days, or months, or years until your father comes home. You do a countdown of your siblings, calculate how much they would need just for food or clothing, and wonder just what is that numerical figure that would allow you to take care of them? How much would be enough? Who calculates that poverty line and where exactly are you on that line dance?
Then you do the math on the opposite end of the spectrum. There are the really rich—the inaccessible ones, the ones staring at you on the glossy pages of the magazine. You know your chances of becoming one of them are astronomical. Astronomical odds: a mathematical concept you can understand. But then there are the people in your neighborhood—the guys with the fancy cars and nice clothes and a swagger in their walk—who have what looks like a good job. You calculate the odds of getting there. There’s a position for drug runner open. Your sister is hungry.
And so you sit there and do the math.
Photo by flickingerbrad / flickr