Only when a sports story crosses over and becomes a bona fide news story do we take note of what thin gruel contemporary sports "journalism" really is. Case in point, Rick Reilly's coverage of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation trial for ESPN.com. I was surfing the site after the NBA finals and was disturbed by Reilly's most recent post, "Sandusky's Continuing Cowardice," which he concludes by expressing hope that the judge "sends Sandusky away for the rest of his days, into the general population at a federal prison, not a protected one."
There are Reilly's basic reporting blunders. Sandusky is facing state charges and isn't headed to federal prison even if convicted. What's more, state prisons have worse reputations for violence and privation than federal ones (Club Fed, some inmates call federal penitentiaries). If he really wanted Sandusky to pay, Reilly would wish for a state bid.
But this is not an ad hominem attack on Reilly, nor is it a call for mercy for Sandusky. What bothered me most was Reilly's not-so-subtle implication that Sandusky will get what's coming to him once he's remanded to the general population of state prison. I doubt Reilly gave his implication much thought. Sadly, his assumption about the fate of child sexual predators in custody is not unusual. In fact, I'd say our fantasies about what other "hardened criminals" will do to such men once they're locked up allows many of us to accept prison sentences as the only price these offenders pay.
Yet by encouraging prison violence even subtly, we impede the kind of change I want to see among incarcerated Americans and in the American penal system as a whole. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time teaching incarcerated men, I object to the role Reilly wants to give them as doers of civilized society's dirty deeds, nefarious things we won't sully our own hands with. I am committed to addressing the deficiencies in education, support and self-esteem these men faced on the streets, deficiencies that in many cases landed them in jail in the first place. I want to help the men I teach make changes in their lives, and I want prisons -- or "correctional facilities" -- to be places that facilitate these changes by providing meaningful programming run by committed staff. Reilly's implication that we want prisoners to continue to mete out street justice while locked up sends a mixed message of the worst kind. Let's not set these men up for failure by implying that violence is acceptable, expected, and that they're good for nothing else.
Prisons need not be gladiator arenas or ye olde community woodshed -- we're all safer if they aren't, since most men and women we send there will be our neighbors again, sooner rather than later. I believe prisons can and should be places where incarcerated people have the opportunities for transformation. Reilly's casual rhetoric baits our bloodlust, but it doesn't help us imagine better communities.