Welcome back to The Bridge Last newsletter outlined how the USA is #winning at locking up its own citizens with a system of incentives that have managed to amass 1/4 of the world’s prisoners in the “land of the free.” Crime rates are not growing, but the rate of incarceration is because of unique incentives and policies we have created to put people behind bars.
Today we will focus on the human rights implications of our Mass Incarceration System. It just so happens that since Edition 5 came out, the US has conducted cruise missile strikes in Syria with the justification of human rights abuses on the part of President Bashar al-Assad. The US has criticized human rights abuses internationally as a world superpower. This might lead a casual observer to assume, if this is how we react internationally—fervently and with bipartisan support—there must a strict, zero-tolerance mindset on human rights abuses domestically as well, right?
Our prison system calls into question this universal assertion. How do we condemn racial or religious discrimination in Palestine, the Western Sahara or Sudan when one out of every three African-American men and one out of six Hispanic men will be incarcerated in the “land of the free”? When punishment no longer means losing daily freedoms, but revoking the essence of dignity itself: physical and sexual assault, isolation to the point of mental deprivation, any remanence of political agency like the right to vote, and/or, eventually, insurmountable obstacles to re-engage with civil society through accessible work, bank loans, or even simple rental agreements. These obstacles that prisoners and former prisoners have are not exactly rallying the same sort of political and media attention that we have witnessed with the Assad human rights abuses, but shouldn’t it?
Two weeks ago marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In it he stated, “[a] true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies”. When norms and values change, it makes us question the ethics and and morals of old practices. The prison system of today is a despicable violator of human rights standards and one of the saddest parts is that everyone knows it. We got to ask ourselves what are the current values we are endorsing and are they really the ones we want to stand behind?
It is time, as Dr. King said, to “question the fairness and justice” of the current system. The integrity of the system reflects on our ethics and values as a society and as a nation.
The Ground Rule for today is simple: we need to agree to hold ourselves to the same standard we hold for the world, Article V of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Prisons in America are not known as cradles of human rights standards. “It is customary to think of prisons as violent environments”. In fact, violent abuse is so common even Spongebob Squarepants can be heard making don’t drop the soap jokes. And no, in case you were wondering, Nickelodeon’s crude reference to anal rape isn’t exactly the most sensitive or informative.
Why do we joke about this? Rape. Gang violence. The amazingly dangerous insecurity a person is subjected to, ironically, in maximum security. How is this funny?
"Jokes target the pain of a particular group of people and dehumanizes them. … It layers the discourse with a veil of acceptance." - Linda Mcfarland, deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Veil of acceptance” meaning that we, as a society, have become resolved to the fact that violence and injustices happen behind prison walls and we justify this in our heads as this is just something that happens—or even worse—they deserve it.
When we speak of violence in prisons, we need to think of the physical and sexual nature of this brutality. There are countless factors that breed this violence in our system of mass incarceration: overcrowding of prisons, subjugation of prisoners (think Stanford Prison Experiment), blatant racism in the system, poor guard training or vetting, as well as general shockingly low accountability. This breeds a very cruel empiric reality that reproduces itself over and over in our prison system.
The violence is not exactly hidden from the public; it’s not a secret. Oxygen, A&E, the History Channel and a few other networks seem to depict the suffering of criminals behind bars around the clock. We know all about these violations, these abuses, this disrespect for human rights. We know it so much so that we watch it for entertainment purposes, and yet rarely does the audience, the viewer, seem to call for something different. But make now mistake, it is our responsibility to do so, absolutely and unequivocally. This is our society, it is our nation, and it is up to us to stand up for the human rights and values we believe in.
A prisoner is referred to as a “wards of the state”, but what does that concept mean? It means it is our country’s job to take care of these prisoners, to defend their civil and human rights, regardless of any crime they have committed. And we are failing. Big time. And when we fail, we compromise the integrity of our society at its foundation. Why? In the words of Nelson Mandela, “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it's lowest ones.”
“[T]here is an attitude of indifference on the part of a lot of people who feel that just because somebody has committed a crime and they’re incarcerated that it’s appropriate for them to be abused while they’re in detention,” states U.S District Judge Reggie B. Walton.
These are no small numbers. In the US, men are raped more frequently than women, and this is due in large part to prison statistics. Furthermore, according to an annual report by the Department of Justice, “48% of substantiated incidents involved staff with inmates”sexual victimization. These are state employees entrusted with protecting the “wards of the state”, and instead, statistically, are responsible for nearly half of their victimization. Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International states of these statistics, “[w]hen corrections agencies choose to ignore sexual abuse committed by staff members—people who are paid by our tax dollars to keep inmates safe—they support criminal behavior.” This is certainly maligned with any vision of punishment or rehabilitation.
The statistics are even higher when it comes to physical assaults. “Approximately 21% of male inmates are physically assaulted during a 6-month period”, and guard-on-inmate assaults are similar to that of sexual assaults. But when it comes to private prisons, these statistics can be even worse: the last study released by the Department of Justice, in 2001, found that the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults was 38 percent higher at private prisons than at public prisons. The victims of these crimes are also disproportionately those who suffer from mental illness. In world of violence, prisoners have no choice but to adapt to this violent environment and are socialized thusly. They are disciplined, not by any resemblance of rehabilitation methods, but by the violent nature of the prisons.
It’s been said that “most prisons and jails foster violence because it is their main form of control”. Abuses that happens within prisons are a form of subjugation, an intensely physical form of “othering”, and we are not doing enough to prevent it. Combine all this with that fact that our prisons are disproportionately filled with racial minorities and the poor. What does it tell these communities, that we don’t respond when physical and sexual violence occurs? What does it say about us, as a nation?
It “appears that these episodes of horror and injustice do not interest the institutions, who are doing nothing to change the state of things”. Plainly, this is unethical and unlawful by any standard, much less the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights.
It is so strangely ingrained into our culture that prisons are violent, these statistics probably don’t shock many of you. However, not only does this have physical and psychological consequences to prisoners themselves, but it also shows a lack of empathy and universality of human rights on the part of American society. Wrongdoers have broken a social contract and a legal contract, but as a country, that does not give us the right, or our government the right, to infringe upon their legal and social rights. And still, some ask, why should I care? What does it matter, they’re criminals?
It matters, because as much as we try to set them aside, prisons and prisoners are not apart from society, but a part. The prison disciplines prisoners under the prison’s norms and values, which are different from the rest of society. A prison guard stated: “No scholar writing in the law-abiding world […] can capture the reality of prison life in all its brutality. Anthony Papa, a former inmate, echoed these thoughts: It’s a horrible place that breeds a pervasive predatory environment”. And eventually, most people are released from prison, but instead of given the tools to reenter the greater society, with tools to become the productive member of the community, they return with lessons of violence, with nearly no means to access the “land of opportunity,” and we are all the lesser for it.
Violent treatment is never a part of a just sentence. A criminal sentence from the judge is prison: not torture, not violence, not rape. If we hold ourselves to a universal doctrine, we must demand better.
“I learned to adapt to my situation, but adaptation came at a cost. I became desensitized to the violence that I witnessed around me. One thing you learn on the inside is how easily the ugliness of prison life seeps into your skin, souring the lives of everyone there, including prisoners, civilians and guards.”
-Anthony Papa, writer, activist and former inmate at Sing Sing Prison
Policing- A Verb
There is a direct correlation between the policing experienced by a community and that community’s presence in the Prison Industrial Complex. At birth, we can statistically determine a black or latino child’s chances of winding up in prison with terrifying accuracy. The school to prison pipeline is really, as I have heard recently, a cradle to incarceration pipeline.
What do we think of when we talk about, police and policing? Law and Order, for sure. As of late, possibly brutality, but I want to expand the thought of policing: What is its function?
Policing, a verb, states it functions as a force to “regulate, control, or keep in order.” What about when other entities, like society, are the purveyors of policing, not authorities? (Yup, just jumped to a different topic without warning.) We call that socialization. Socialization is the process of learning to behave in a way that is socially acceptable, that is, learning to behave congruent with social norms. In the United States, as with most societies, it is the norm that defines acceptability—and boy do we have a way of generating some intense and powerful norms. We live in constant reciprocity with our social norms, they are a force that defines and regulates and keeps order, and in this way, in their own subtle means, they are a policing force.
Growing up, gender socialization is particularly forceful: “Because you are this SEX, these are the ways we are going to treat you. We treat you like this so that you grow up expressing THIS gender because that is what society finds acceptable.” The “ways we are going to treat you” are not named or explicit, but ambiguous, subtle, even subconscious and that is a huge function of socialization. It regulates implicitly. The people employing the socialization don’t always realize what they are doing because it’s such a historic norm that some people think it is invariable. It is disguised unconsciously, but our generation is pursuing a consciousness. We know now, however, it is not invariable. In fact, there are boundless complexities and we cannot ignore their very real implications.
The transgender community in the United States is fighting the fact that their identities, and thusly their bodies have been policed from birth to fit a norm.
The prison system is simultaneously policing bodies that fall out of a social norm.
Now what happens when these forces merge?
According to Lambda Legal, nearly one in six transgender Americans and one in twoblack transgender people have been to prison (one of the highest rates of any population in America). The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates a total of 3,200 transgender individuals currently in the system. Under full control of the state, access to hormone therapy or reassignment surgeries are often not accessible, and it is shown that violence against trans people increases in spaces segregated by sex, that is, prisons! So to be clear, the trans community has a higher rate of incarceration and then once behind bars, a trans person is less likely to have control over their gender and more likely to be subjected to violence and assault.
These challenges, along with already breaking out of societal norms within a heavily policed system cause deep discrimination against the trans population within the prison system. Deviations from the norm draw attention, and extra attention in prison makes everything much, much worse. The trans population is, in CA, 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. And with too much attention, they are more likely to be isolated andput in solitary confinement. And with all of this, they are roughly eight times more likely to commit suicide than the average non-trans prisoner.
So what is the system doing to stop this? Answer, not much of anything, though there are some advocacy groups working hard to combat it. But what can we do? For one, improving our society’s compassion toward the trans community is an important first step. This type of compassion involves not only acknowledging the challenges that trans people face but also taking a minute to contemplate the norms we exude everyday to the people in our lives. The standards of gender we expect people to perform.
The policing of bodies, their behaviors, and the hierarchy through which we evaluate our bodies is rooted, ultimately, in an arbitrary construction. If we stop “policing” bodies in our everyday environments, we begin to construct a future of new institutional and social leaders who also do not. We need to see modes of socialization as a way of policing in order to realize how oppressive these dynamics can play into our personal relationships.
Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitation through reconciliation with a community at large and it is well suited for the trans community. It is generally done through storytelling and dialogue and is therefore often dismissed as obsolete and amateur. But we have never tried it on a scale this large before, just as we have never tried centering trans people in some of our nation’s largest law provisions. What does it look like to bring restorative justice to everyday life before a crime is committed? What does it look like to create spaces where people who cannot conform to a gender binary can speak their truth without fear? Without feeling like society takes their truth to be a public threat?
We have all the tools we need, we just need to employ them. Remember, the trans community does not need a voice, they already have one! They have simply been marginalized to such an extreme that it appears as though they do not. It is our role to engage with opportunities, not to speak, but to listen to the needs of the trans community. To hear their stories, their trials of being policed by social norms and their trials of being policed by the state, the violence they face, the mistreatment, the discrimination, the abuse, and the injustices. And we listen in hopes that if you are a member of the community, you know that You exist. You matter. We see You.
What Would It Look Like?
The US, being almost 5% of the world's population, holds 20-25% of the world's prisoners but are we 4-5 times more violent than the rest of the world or are we just better at catching bad guys? Turns out, neither.
In 1980, the United States held about 500,000 people in federal and state prisons. Double that of 1920, 250,000. As of 2014, there were 2.4 million people behind bars despite crime actually decreasing over the past few decades. The US has just under 1% of all adults in prison, each costing between $15,000 and $59,000/year, depending on the state and costing taxpayers $80Billion annually ($350 of your dollars from that tax return you just sent in).
So what does this get us? Are we any safer? Answer, in short, no. And yet, a clearly deficient system remains.
If our system isn’t working, maybe we should take a look at some other options. Since the U.S. has the second largest prison population per capita of any county (Republic of Seychelles is first), and we have more prisoners than China (population of a billion more people), lets start on the other end of the spectrum. Looking at you, Norway.
This small cold country has the lowest prison population as a percentage of total population, 0.08%, about 4,000 people total. But aside from that, the rate at which people return to prison after being released (recidivism rate) is also the lowest, around 1 in 5. The US is 3 out of every 4.
What’s the difference? Norway focuses on what they call “restorative justice.” The idea is to ask why someone might choose to commit a crime in the first place. It tries to analyze the trauma caused to both the victim AND the offender. After which, they build a sense of community and support for all parties. Now, this may sound like a bunch of hippy mumbo jumbo but seems to be working a hell of a lot better than what we are working with over here.
So let's talk options. Regardless of your crime, Norway prisons coordinate with other government agencies to find released inmates housing, a job and even a supportive community network. Sounds like an honest attempt to keep criminals out of the criminal justice system.
In a state like Nebraska, a prisoner is released with usually $100 or less and needs to then find his own place, reconnect with any family or past social circles (potentially putting them back in the same circumstance that brought on the criminal activity to begin with) and then find a job.
Oh, and not a small side note, but Norway offers free health care, college education and pensions to all citizens—what a tragedy for their society, huh? Where a person, convict or otherwise, feels safe, cared for and hopeful that they can have a legitimate future.
So you might say, yeah, but sounds expensive. True, each prisoner costs the Norwegian taxpayer around $93,000/year, but in total, because these policies vastly reduced the total numbers of those incarcerated, it's only about $74 dollars per taxpayer, per year. Compare to the $350 above.
When thinking about how a Norwegian system’s rehabilitation and reintegration focus might save us some mulah, consider that average time spent in prison in the US jumped from 1.5 years in 1988 to over 7 years in 2012. Norway’s average prison sentence is 8 months. The way we treat our criminals is a choice, and we are choosing an option that does not make sense at any measure. It seems like we are just trying to find ways to make our system cost more and yet somehow make it less effective, and more abusive. (I wonder if the incentives we talked about last edition has anything to do with that?)
Norway has what they call a principle of normality. This means that a prisoner's punishment is the restriction of their liberty. That’s it, no other rights can be removed and life inside prison should resemble as closely as possible to life outside. This is another way they focus on reintegration. Their program slowly moves prisoners from high security to low security prison and then to halfway houses in order to allow people to have the best possible chances of success when released.
The principle is reflected in the prison layout. Rooms look like single hotel rooms, with tv’s and every 10 or so single units is connected to a common room and a kitchen where inmates relax and prepare their own meals after a day of work. Guards are extensively trained to help rehabilitate and motivate inmates, you can often find them sharing meals or playing sports with the prisoners. Outlets for learning and creativity stretch as far as nutritional cooking classes and music recording studios.
I know, I know, I know. You are thinking, yeah, but that’s Norway, Scandinavia, we could never do that here. To which I ask, where is all that red-blooded patriotism? It always blows my mind how easily people can both boast American exceptionalism and yet dismiss any call to do better with a, “we could never.” As though we are somehow both the most determined and innovative people in the world while at the same time incapable of improving when our systems are proven to be deficient. But because I know some will dismiss Norway anyway, I want to mention another place, not in Scandinavia, that’s figured out that the golden rule works in criminal justice just as it does in society on the whole. Treat others the way you would like to be treated works in everyday life, but this simple moral can have an incredible impact with prisoners as well. Check out Uganda’s maximum security prison that utilizes the inmates love of football (soccer) to keep an extremely overcrowded, understaffed prison in good spirits and keeping a recidivism rate to half to what we have here, in the US.
Can we do better? Yes. The excuses are tired, weak, and rooted in political jargon not social will. What does that say about our democracy? Can we do better? Hell yes. Should we? We must.
It’s an imperative, not an option, and luckily there are plenty of examples out there managing criminal behavior much, much better. This means, we won’t need to go about guessing when it comes to reform, we can look around and be guided by numbers and results for improvements, we just need some social strength and political guts to adopt them.