Do Some Prisoners Matter More Than Others?

When I get into conversations with people about prisoner rights, the conditions in US prison, and specific prison reform issues—like getting rid of solitary confinement and addressing the health care gap in prisons—there’s always a significant elephant in the room. On the surface, many self-identified progressives support prisoner rights, at the very least opposing the death penalty, and they express concern when it comes to some of the worst abuses that take place in US prisons. Many are concerned about the considerable racial disparities in the prison system, and with how many prisoners are exploited as a labour force.

But what they want to talk about, and what advocacy groups focus on, are nonviolent offenders, particularly nonviolent drug offenders. Thanks to mandatory minimums and things like California’s Three Strikes Law, the prison system across the country is overcrowded with people who’ve ended up in jail and prison for comparatively minor crimes, involving situations that didn’t directly involve violence; they were caught carrying marijuana, for example, or dealing cocaine. These prisoners differ from people in jail for robbery, for beatings, and, of course, for rape and murder, two of the crimes many people consider most serious.

With good reason. Murder is one of the most extreme crimes, because taking someone’s life is the ultimate act of violence. Rape as an act of violence also has severe ramifications for the victim, who will live with the experience for life. There’s a reason we view these crimes harshly as a collective society, and why we consider rapists and murderers to be the lowest of the low, particularly if they’ve attacked children, whom we collectively agree are in need of special protection due to their more vulnerable status.

So when we talk about prison reform, many people shy away from talking about murderers and rapists and their rights, as well as the fact that they deserve justice. Despite the fact that the racial disparities seen in nonviolent drug convictions, robberies, and similar crimes are also seen with rape and murder, there’s an unwillingness to engage with issues like the possibility of profiling, false conviction, harsher sentences because of an offender’s race, and the myriad complicating factors that interfere with true equality for prisoners in the US, all of whom do in fact deserve human rights, no matter what their crimes.

I tend not to talk about my personal life here very much these days, but I’d like to tell you a brief story. My godfather, who passed away last year, was a murderer; I’m not going to write about the details of his crime here, but he killed someone, and my father was well aware of that when he entrusted me to my godfather’s care as a child, when he welcomed my godfather into our family, when he extended help when my godfather needed it. My godfather did time in the prison system and in state mental institutions, but that wasn’t the man I knew. The man I knew was just my godfather, a man with a smoker’s laugh and a slow, deliberate way of moving and engaging with the world that belied his quick mind and radical beliefs.

My godfather spent his life trying to make good on his crime and agonising over what he had done, living in the awareness that nothing would make right for what happened that day. He worked with people getting out of the prison system as well as mental health patients making the transition from institutions to independent living, and he spent his life relatively poor, but focused both on his art and his work. So there’s a reason prison reform is a particularly close issue to me, and there’s a reason that I am not afraid to confront the reality that rapists and murderers are people too.

Rapists and murderers have done terrible things, and some of them are also terrible people, but they are still people. And every time I see ‘progressives’ trotting out nonviolent drug offenders as the only people we should be concerned about in the prison system, I get irritated. I understand why they do it. They don’t want to alienate people or push them away from the cause. They want to make sure people feel comfortable getting involved with prison rights issues. Maybe they think that they can create a domino effect, where respect for other types of offenders will follow after society gets used to the idea that nonviolent drug offenders deserve full human rights.

But it still makes me burn inside, because I think of all the rapists and murderers I have known; the terrible people among them and the people among them who did bad things but spent a lot of time confronting their past and asking themselves how they could begin to repair the harm they had done. I might be labeled as a radical for saying it, but terrible and good alike still deserved better conditions in prison, still deserved human rights, still deserved to be treated like living beings worthy of respect. To advocate otherwise is to become that which I despise.

Prisoners don’t just deserve rights because some of them might be falsely imprisoned, because the justice system is seriously skewed and many people lack the resources they need to confront it, because people of colour are profiled and subject to longer sentences and harsher punishments, but because they are human beings. I realise that not everyone supports prison abolition, but I dislike the idea of promoting prisoner welfare by focusing on the wellbeing of some groups of prisoners over others.

My godfather deserved better than he got from the justice system, no matter the nature of the crime he committed. And the same goes for all the prisoners serving criminal sentences and enduring unimaginable conditions in the belly of the beast.