A few years ago we reported on Patricia Krenwinkel’s parole denial. Today’s New York Times includes an emotional opinion piece by Krenwinkel, looking back on her life and speaking about the Manson family, her crimes, the years in prison, and her self identity.
Will Krenwinkel ever receive parole? I doubt it. Even with our recasting of old and infirm inmates from risky to expensive, the Manson Family murders have a strong symbolic hold over our culture and imagination, and our revulsion of violent crime expresses itself in our fears and vindictiveness. As some readers may recall, another Family member, Susan Atkins, died in prison and was denied parole despite advanced cancer and disability.
But what I find notable here is something that sometimes gets forgotten in anti-prison advocacy: the importance of a message of responsibility. This is what makes me a radical realist. I truly believe that violent crime is real. I don’t think it’s common, nor do I think it justifies the mass incarceration machine and the human rights violations behind bars. But to victims, actual and potential, homicide, assault, and sexual abuse are frightening and damaging and debilitating. And no matter what environmental considerations we take into account, we must not discount the importance of taking personal responsibility. Not as part of a retributivist approach, but as part of a social prevention strategy.
When people who committed violent crime take personal responsibility for their crime, they teach us that redeeming the soul from shame and guilt is possible. They teach us that the victim is no “other” and that our shared humanity means we can have empathy for one another. It means that women are not hoes, cops are not pigs, rival gang members are not animals, people at work one begrudges are not monsters, old people are not dispensable, people of different ethnicities and family structures are not despicable. They teach us that life goes on behind bars, and that even though conditions may be atrocious and require a struggle, there may also be an internal struggle to mature and understand and know yourself better. And perhaps, if victims and potential victims are people, then the inmates serving time for violent crimes are not monsters, either–they are people, like you and me, who did terrible things, and while we expect them to pay a price, and to protect society from the danger they pose, we also should treat them as human beings.