Prison reform, I’ve noticed, isn’t a very popular topic — especially when it comes to the parts of prison reform that make people uncomfortable. It’s easy for liberals to pay lip service to issues like mandatory sentencing, poor health care and food in the prison system, prison labour, and abuse in prisons, but beneath all these things, there’s a running theme, a suggestion, an assumption: The belief that prison is necessary and appropriate, at least in some cases. Prison abolitionists tend to get shunted out of the conversation about the prison system, because we advocate for things that cause extreme unease by daring to suggest that maybe prisons shouldn’t exist at all.
This is a problem, because many liberals ostensibly have a problem with the justice system, but don’t understand that they’re feeding its continued existence. I’m thinking particularly here of howls for blood when people are convicted of really heinous crimes: Everyone wants to know why someone didn’t get a harsher sentence for rape, for murder, for a vicious assault. Or everyone wants to know why someone is being allowed out on parole, insisting that a prisoner has been held for an insufficient amount of time.
I’m going to be honest with you: These people make me uncomfortable.
Because when you start talking about how people should get harsher sentences, or how people are being let out on parole ‘too early,’ you are legitimising the prison system. To begin with, you’re reinforcing the notion of a punitive justice system and reiterating the belief that ‘some people’ should be locked up — even if people like to claim that this is about keeping criminals away from the rest of society. Locking people up is penal in nature. It’s why they call it the penal system. The point of prison is to send a message both to incarcerated people and to people contemplating similar crimes. This is why we imprison people. The question of keeping them off the streets to prevent recidivism is, honestly, secondary.
When you validate the idea that people should be imprisoned by suggesting that people should be spending more time in jail, you’re affirming the justice system as it stands now. You’re feeding a huge and complex system. It’s the system that allows for the privatisation of prisons and immense profits for people and companies involved in the industry. It’s the same system that devalues’ prisoners lives, turning them into numbers and so much garbage. It’s the same system that supports a highly racialised justice system, ensuring that people of colour are profiled by law enforcement, have a difficult time getting and paying for fair trials, and spend more time in jail and prison. Every time you suggest that prison has a role in society, you’re reinforcing the notion that prisons as an entity should be allowed to continue, and you’re also affirming the tremendous injustices that run throughout or legal system.
I understand why punitive, retributive justice is so appealing to so many people. There’s a kneejerk response to lash out at something unfair, something cruel, something terrible, something that makes us feel bad, like maybe if we can inflict enough damage, it will somehow make good on what happened. It’s the same thing that makes us smack the tables we run into — you were there, you hurt me, I’m going to hurt you back. The thing is, though, that retribution doesn’t work, in a social or psychological sense.
The United States has a shockingly high prison population. Either this is because we are brilliant criminal apprehenders saving the citizenry from the horrific threat of evil monsters, or it’s because we have a huge prison-industrial complex that finds reasons to put people in jail, keeps them there, and traps them. Penalising people doesn’t actually resolve recidivism and make people safer — if anything, it creates a system where people know nothing but criminality, and therefore return to it the minute they get out of prison. Penalising people also doesn’t make good on their crimes — a murder victim is still dead whether her killer spends a day, a week, a year, a lifetime in jail. And research on restorative justice indicates that victims and survivors actually have better outcomes in cases where they are able to play an active, restorative role in the trial and sentencing process.
You cannot claim to be perturbed about the prison system in America and then turn around doing things that legitimise prisons. I mean you can, because people do it, but it weakens your argument and validates the people who insist that sometimes imprisonment is just necessary. I realise that it may feel deeply scary to admit that prisons should not exist, that they are a profound injustice, that we need to completely reform our justice system to generate actual justice for people, but, uh, that’s what needs to happen. As a collective nation, we need to acknowledge that our mindset and way of life isn’t working.
This isn’t about going soft on crime or letting people go away with it. It is about acknowledging that the world is a complex place and victims need actual justice, not retribution. So the next time you rush to complain about a lenient sentence, or express fury about a ‘too early’ parole, think about the implications of what you’re doing, and saying. Think about who is listening. And think about the outcome you really want.
Image: Prison cells, Melissa Robison, Flickr