Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Our Obsession with Punishment Part I: Lessons Learned

Tom Zolot

Tom serves at The Center for Restorative Approaches.

I don’t understand our obsession with punishment. The punishment reflex that pervades our schools, homes, and hearts baffles me.  We operate as if these punishments teach positive corrective lessons when really they teach our youth the wrong lessons.  The assumption is that people will be good because they learn important fear-lessons when they’re bad.  But for many, those punishments don’t correct behavior. Many times punishments teach the exact opposite of the lessons than the ones we try to teach.

I had a terrible moment recently.  I was biking along, and a police patrol car passed me.  In the back was a young man – very young.  A young teen was being taken in, statistically speaking, likely for fighting or drugs.  He was likely cuffed (chained) and going to spend a bit of time in a cell (cage).  As the car cruised by, I instinctively sped up.  My pedals couldn’t carry me to them and reaching them wouldn’t free him.

What lessons are this arrest teaching? What lessons do police or others think are being taught? These kids are not scared of our chains and cages, our suspensions and expulsions. They live much scarier lives, and policing is a force of nature for them.  Punishment is a normal occurrence; imprisonment is a rite of passage.

We are teaching those most in need that punishment is normal (Lesson 1).  You get on the bus; you get punished.  You go to school; you get punished.  Cop stops you; you get punished.  Often these punishments separate the youth from their communities and peers.  This teaches that they don’t belong in positive environments (Lesson 2).

No mentor or teacher is attempting to teach these lessons.    More over, they are the opposite of what we are aiming to teach: empathy, responsibility, accountability.  The youth in the back of that cop car was very likely not reflecting on his social position, not reflecting on how he was going to make things right.  Why would he be? Nothing about his punishment or arrest was teaching him these things. More likely than not he was thinking, “Same #&%@; different day.” Continuing to punish is to continue teaching these lessons.

Youth lives – all lives – matter too much to be ineffective.

We need to concede that punishment is worse than ineffective. It’s overtly harmful.  We need to concede that it teaches the wrong lessons.  By doing the hard work and bringing youth into community rather than driving them away, we will begin teaching them the right lessons.



This entry was posted on September 30, 2014 by in VISTA Field Reports.



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