In "The Shackles of Humanity" (editorial, June 30, 1995) Daniel Altman presents an occasionally passionate, though largely melodramatic and plainly biased attack of the prison work reforms which a number of the Southern states lately have begun to introduce. As regards the most simple errors of this editorial, Altman inaccurately reports the name of Alabama's governor, Feb James, and clumsily insults the entire South with his depracatory recitation of white Southern dialect, African-American dialect, as once presented in the works of white Southern authors, or the broken English of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, as formerly derided in anti-Semitic media, arguably would arouse different emotions or reactions among those who sneer with Altman in his parody of white Southern speech.
In an unimaginative and transparent attempt at sympathy, Altman quotes the perhaps real, but plainly media savvy convict, who pleads his manhood over his less apparent canine qualities. In presenting this account, Altman evidently suggests a racially biased policy among Southern policy makers, because the school of argumentation presented here directly descends from the antebellum crusade against slavery. An institution which in its diminution of the human spirit ranks among the most sordid legacies of world history, plantation slavery subjugated everyone, white and Black, within a racially divided and potentially explosive social prison. Whereas contemporary prison labor specifically punishes the guilty for the crimes which they committed, slavery indiscriminately shackled the innocent for having fallen into the slave-trader's custody.
An obvious question which Altman fails to answer concerns the reasons for restoration of the chain gang system: the need for criminals to understand the consequences of the crimes which they freely chose to commit. In a further statement of his blundering genius, Altman condemns the death penalty, which he apparently considers the next logical step beyond the contemporary chain gang. Granted, death penalty recipients--not victims--cannot recount the last painful moments of their wasted lives, but neither can the murdered victims of cruel and unusual crimes confide to loved ones the final painful, tortured moments of their abruptly extinguished lives.
Although society may dislike prisons, forced labor, or executions, because these unsightly necessities remind society of its weaknesses, the maintenance of order within society nonetheless requires a system of justice. A better agenda for Altman might relate to the prevention of crimes, a policy which has the positive effect of creating neither victims nor chain gang convicts.
Although Altman alludes to Nazi and Soviet death-labor camps--extreme examples of human inhumanity--the idealist editor fails to describe the nature of contemporary chain gang labor. Instead, Altman compares the disease-ridden prison camps of early 20th century America to the most horrible places of extermination know to recorded history. Alabama prisoners who today collect waste from the roadsides, and who suffer through heat, cold and embarrassment, face only the indignity which they brought upon themselves, rather then the certain and horrible death which millions of innocents endured merely because they were born. Mr. Altman, comparisons such as yours do not under any circumstances" come to mind much more quickly." In conclusion, Altman's youth and inexperience ought not to count against him, but Altman clearly needs a little more education! J. D. Brandenburg Summer School