Steve Wiesinger pictured here in 1984

As an innovative teacher for many years at Soquel High School, as a published novelist and poet, and as a creative writing teacher at Soledad, San Quentin and Vacaville maximum-security prisons, Steve Wiesinger seemed an unlikely candidate to be a card-carrying law-and-order conservative, if that truly was his message. The Prison Arts Program was and is a locally based, admirable attempt at bringing light into darkness, life into places reeking of death and doom.

Wiesinger, who ended his long tenure with Prison Arts last Spring, took pains to establish his still-a-liberal-after-all-these-years credentials. “I really am a progressive. But what I’m interested in doing is cutting down on violent crime. I didn’t develop these ideas over a short time, I tested them out.”

Wiesinger said not being a penologist or criminologist stood him in good stead, that he had no stake in the prison system, no vested ax to grind.

“My qualifications (to address the problem of violent criminals) are as an interested observer who’s been on the inside,” he said.

Wiesinger talked about the cause-and-effect of “permissive social attitudes” upon violent criminals. “It’s like the hand-writing in the wall, it’s that clear. As soon as you get people breaking lots of laws, moral boundaries begin to fall.”

There was something else going on with the men he’d met: The macho, I’m a bad dude attitude, which cuts across racial and cultural barriers, infecting its adherents with a warped sense of what it means to be a male in this world.

“There’s always been an antiauthority, anti-establishment tradition in this country.” Wiesinger said. “A false idea of masculinity permeates our culture. The cowboy-macho idea comes from the taming of the West. It’s the simplest idea about violence, this false ideal of masculinity, yet it’s the key point.” Prison programs, he said, just don’t deal with this basic root of violent crime.

Wiesinger said he’s “not convinced on either side” about capital punishment. “Part of me says, ‘Forget it. Do him in.’ The other part says, ‘We want Justice.’ My mother taught me two wrongs don’t make a right. But to allow these people (convicted violent criminals) out under any circumstances is wrong. If someone steps that far outside the human family, there has to be some severity.”

What about “model prisoners”? “Some guys do great in prison – it’s a male world, isolated, structured. They act OK… Society needs to be protected. These (crimes) are horrible, abysmal things to do.”

Wiesinger worked at Vacaville with sex-slayer Edmund Kemper who killed and mutilated eight women in Santa Cruz County in the early 1970s. “Kemper is a model prisoner – a potter, he writes poetry, he runs a prison program for the blind, a pretty nice guy – but how are you ever going to say this guy is rehabilitated?,” said Wiesinger. “Do you want him out there? I don’t.”

Edmund Kemper

Wiesinger looked pained. A logical, methodical, intense man preaching a difficult message. “Other societies just write people like that off. I’m far from advocating something like that, but clear, decisive, harsh punishment is called for. Liberals have a hard time with the word ‘punishment,’ but people are controlled by punishment. If we’re clear about that, then we won’t get hundreds of criminals whining and sniveling, ‘The system is ripping me off! I’m a political revolutionary!’ ”

Wiesinger cited the pernicious roles played by television and movies in perpetuating an attitude of violence in already fragile psyches. “When I asked men why they had committed a particular crime, a lot of them mentioned something they’d seen on TV or in the movies.”

“The process of rationalization in prison is absolutely fantastic. I used to think people who committed violent crimes had to be insane. My moral standards would not admit murder or violent crime could be a rational act. But it is. When I listened to what people said to me, I knew for them it was a rational act. People don’t want to admit someone can be that mean or heartless. Yet, in eight years working in prisons, I never heard a convict express regret over hurting somebody,” Wiesinger concluded.

Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel – November 29, 1984, Excerpts from the article “Voice in the wilderness: Steve Wiesinger on violent crime” by Don Miller