A twitter by Solitary Watch (good site on solitary confinement) turned me on to this blog, Prison Culture, and this page below that I landed on there couldn't be more appropriate right now (I also lifted the picture to the right from their site). The correspondence I've had with the survivor of a murder victim, the Kingman escapes, and a gang's attack on a friend's son in the AZ Department of Juvenile Corrections have been disturbing of late - as have the assault on me in May and the recent theft of my laptop from my home. My faith has been challenged by my outrage - I even wrestled briefly with my opposition to both life without parole and the death penalty upon learning about the older couple murdered by those Arizona escapees.
I don't have the answers for what to do with all the "bad people" in the world. I do still believe that what we're doing in the way of crime and punishment in America is a colossal tragedy - far more people get victimized and brutalized by the state and corporate America than we have in prison for lesser crimes. In fact, many of those in prison are the ones who have been - and are being - victimized by our misplaced fear and rage, and targeted by the bad people in power.
That's not to say that there aren't bad people in prison - there are plenty enough there. Many such people I would vote myself to segregate from the rest of society somehow, lacking better options for protecting the community from sociopaths. But a lot of sociopaths are extremely successful business leaders, police officers, lawmakers, psychiatrists, and so on who aren't about to be stopped by the systems they currently control, even though they harm far more people in more torturous ways than your everyday burglar or street gang member. It is the legitimacy of their conduct, in fact, that makes them so much more dangerous than people who have been criminalized due to their poverty, race, or citizenship status. Abuse is abuse, whether it's called a crime or not. So is discrimination, exploitation, and slavery. Most good sociopaths are obsessive about following the letter of the law, in fact, because the law is what favors and protects them, not the rest of us. It is their law, by and large, not ours.
Anyway, this post from Mariame at Prison Culture touches on a lot of the issues that compelled me to start blogging on the prison industrial complex in the first place, a little over a year ago now. I've just had a lot on my hands getting involved in the lives of the people being chewed up by it. It makes sitting down and pondering things once in awhile more difficult, while at the same time it makes such pondering more relevant and necessary, too - otherwise my every action becomes reaction which all too often stems from my own fears. I guess even abolitionists aren't immune from thinking and acting from a place of indoctrination rather than deliberation at times.
With that, here's the start of the piece that helped me begin to get focused again tonight - don't worry, I didn't stray too far. I'd encourage you to follow the link and read it through, then explore their blog and other links a little further if prison abolition is something that really interests you. Their focus is on ending the incarceration of youth. I'm presuming Mariame won't mind the compliment and promotion, but will be dropping her a line about setting up a link so you can find the site again.
Whenever I talk about my work with others, I make sure to stress that it focuses on developing community-based alternatives to the traditional criminal legal system. I add that we do this using a transformative justice approach and lens. Many have responded to me by saying: “that’s not something that I can wrap my mind around.” This is usually followed by the questions: “What does transformative justice look like?” and “How would it work?” Actually I should back up to say that the first question is usually: “What about the violent and bad people? Surely you are not advocating letting them out of prison!”
I understand the fear that people have of the so-called “unknown.” People would rather rely on a criminal legal system that they KNOW is ineffective and unjust than to move to an approach that they view as “unproven” and perhaps even Utopian. It provides them with a sense of safety, however fragile. Hence, the constant and persistent question: “What about the bad people?”
I understand that people want to have some sense of accountability for harm that was done. I often answer questions about the “bad people” by asking individuals whether they feel that every “bad” person is currently incarcerated. If they say, no, I ask them if it is realistic to incapacitate every “bad” person on the planet. In fact, what does it even mean to be a “bad” person? Then I ask them to think about what factors determine who ends up behind bars. This is intended to push people to acknowledge the fact that not every “crime” is punished and that certain groups always seem to be more of a target for punishment than others. I point out that the majority of people who are incarcerated are non-violent offenders. I tell them that if they would agree to release all of those people only then am I willing to entertain their questions about the “bad” people. This serves as a way not to get bogged down in the endless discussion about whether “bad” people need to go to prison. Once all of the non-violent prisoners are freed, I am confident that we would be able to make the case that prisons are in existence to mask our failure for addressing the root causes of oppression. As such, more people would be freed still. We need to start opening the doors of the prisons and this necessitates deploying alternative approaches to addressing violence and crime.
I am prompted to write this post today after reading an article in the Daily Progress about restorative justice. I wanted to write about this topic because it is past time that those of us who are anti-prison activists step up to the plate and create actual community-based alternatives that do not rely on the criminal legal system to solve issues of violence and crime. We cannot simply rely on analysis of the problem of mass incarceration as important as that work is. We have to test our theories about using transformative approaches to addressing violence and crime. We have to be willing to take some risks and to also be prepared to fail some times. More of us have to put our ideas in practice. It takes courage because it is lonely and difficult work but we cannot expect to dismantle the prison industrial complex if we do not develop vehicles for community accountability with respect to violence and crime. We can start small and that is exactly what we are attempting in our organization.
Many people of good will are looking for concrete examples of restorative and transformative practice in action. Restorative justice as an approach to addressing violence and crime is only one step on a continuum of community accountability. That continuum is ultimately pointing our society towards TRANSFORMATIVE justice...(go here for the rest. It's worth it.)