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We can and should try to keep South Dakota's prison population down, but some cells will still be filled. Photo of Yankton's Federal Prison Camp by Bernie Hunhoff.
We can and should try to keep South Dakota's prison population down, but some cells will still be filled. Photo of Yankton's Federal Prison Camp by Bernie Hunhoff.

Some Cells Will Be Filled

May 2, 2012

I attended a Republican candidates forum here in Spearfish the other night. (There are no Democrats running, so to get my political fix, I have to hang out with the other side.) One of the questions for our State Senate candidates was whether South Dakota has too many people in prison and, if so, what would the candidates do to reduce the prison population. Mildly ominous chuckles and suggestions rolled through the audience before the two candidates took their swing at what they admitted is a somewhat intractable problem. The candidates agree that to reduce our prison population, maybe we need better parenting and education.

This discussion got me thinking about one prisoner making the Lake County jail more crowded this spring. Carl V. Ericsson allegedly drove down from Watertown to Madison one January night and killed Norm Johnson, a man who taught me English at MHS. If anything could get me muttering to my neighbors about frontier justice methods of reducing the prison population, it would be the murder of which Ericsson stands accused. 

The 73-year-old Ericsson allegedly shot the 72-year-old Johnson over a grudge from when they were MHS students over 50 years ago. Over fifty years ago. Ericsson and Johnson had lived more than twice as much life as they had when they knew each other in high school. After all that time, to let an adolescent grudge drive you to murder... well, you'd have to be nuts.

Ericsson appears ready to admit exactly that. According to the press, Ericsson's lawyer has told the judge that Ericsson is ready to plead guilty but mentally ill. If that plea agreement holds,  Ericsson will increase the state prison population by one for the rest of his natural days.

Ericsson probably isn't the kind of prisoner my neighbors at the Spearfish forum had in mind. Asking how we could have kept him out of prison is as futile as asking how we could have saved Norm Johnson's life. (Despair, if not madness, lies down that road: we've lost Norm, and we can't get him back.) Ericsson's parenting and schooling were just fine. His brother Dick became a successful attorney and city official in Madison. Carl Ericsson got a college degree, stayed married to one woman for 44 years, and had no criminal record... until one winter day, something cracked.

South Dakota's prison population and expenditures are growing. I hope our candidates will spend this election year talking about why that's happening and what we can do to change that. We can keep some prison cells empty by strengthening education, economic opportunities, and other policies to reduce the poverty and despair that drive some people to crime. We can identify offenders who may benefit from alternatives to incarceration. We can raise our kids with patience and love, not fear and hate.

But some people will still go wrong. I do not know what personal gesture or policy action we might have undertaken 5 or 50 years ago to keep Norm Johnson alive and to keep Carl Ericsson stable and out of stripes. No matter how hard we try, some prison cells will still be filled.

Comments

12:54 pm - Mon, September 17 2012
rebecca wallace said:
I was also taught English by Norm Johnson at MHS and I can attest that he was a sadistic,misogynistic little bully that delighted in picking on the weak and powerless
He wad given to fits of temper; his face would turn red ifhr was challenged and he would slam books down and yell and threw the occassional eraser along with a few profanities. The only surprise I feel is that someone didn't shoot him long ago.
I nearly dropped out my freshman year because of him and a few others but thanks to the intervention of John Lang and my first boss Gerri Maloney I went on to graduate from Washington High in Sioux Falls with honors and from Rogers State in Oklahoma with top honors.
07:01 am - Tue, October 30 2012
Kristi said:
Very complicated issue. It should begin with profiles and interviews of those in prison. What research tells us now is that most prisoners come from homes where a father was not present, or was present and was abusive. Ask how many of them were bullies in school, a majority were, how many of them have learning disabilities and were never taught by enough teachers that cared. How many of them had "no hope" of the future and didn't know how to deal with things when they got tough and many from generational poverty. Education, Coping skills, hope, many, many reasons, none of which have to do with political affiliation.

Parenting classes are wonderful if they can be taught with the child present or in the home when the family is in crisis. Otherwise, forget it, they aren't going to be effective. Education has to be seen as a "way out" and not a "legal obligation." There would not be enough time in a year to know how to address this situation, let alone answer it at a public forum.

It is definitely an important question, and one of the most complicated.
11:44 pm - Thu, November 1 2012
I appreciate the comment, Kristi. There is no easy solution. There may be no complete solution. But your comment gets me thinking... if an absent or abusive father is a common denominator among prisoners, then that should put all of us men on alert that we have to do fathering right. We have to be there. We have to be strong, but the right kind of strong. I wonder how many men who aren't good father material will be sufficiently receptive and patient to take lessons on how to be good fathers?

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