Prisoner Lives Matter, or at least they should. Yet, I’ve come to wonder if society actually sees the incarcerated as valuable or worthy of protection, especially in recent light of the pandemic? It pains me deeply to think of their plight but it hurts, even more, to consider that others, the majority, aren’t. The COVID-19 virus continues to expose the cognitive dissonance that exists across our nation in regard to those incarcerated, aware of the virulency of the disease but ignoring a large population of people most at-risks. What is happening in nearly every prison, jail, youth facility and detention center in the United States of America, and I dare say around the world, is completely unacceptable, leading me to the depressing conclusion that to the public and politicians, prisoners’ lives must not matter. COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire, seeping into the concrete walls and cages of 2.3 million captive humans in the US where at least 70% of prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus. According to a recent NY Times article from June 16, 2020, “the five largest known clusters of the virus in the United States are not at nursing homes or meatpacking plants, but inside correction institutions.” It has become clear that the system of incarceration as we have it currently and how it has existed since the dawn of prisons in 1829 is unsustainable, cruel and a complete disgrace to the men, women, and children trapped in these facilities as well as their families, friends, and the public as taxpayers.
Right now, as you read this, there are millions of people locked in cages the size of a small bathroom with someone of the same sex, forced to go to the bathroom, exercise, do laundry, eat and sleep in this suffocating, confined space and have been for the last 4 months with little to no release. Telephone calls are minimal, the mail is non-existent, the paltry semblance of normality that existed before the virus in regards to family visits, yard time, commissary purchases, educational and self-help classes, and meager labor work assignments, often referred to as slave labor, that pays inmates anywhere between .08 cents to $1.00 an hour has come to an abrupt and painful halt. Yet, few seem to care as state governments push the problem under the rug and the mainstream public questions little. Most of us are taught through popular discourse and media constructions that prisoners belong exactly where they are and if they are suffering, perhaps they deserve it. Do you think that? Is that why you’re not up at night worrying about prisoners as I am?
I’m a 5’10, blond, Caucasian, a lean mean machine of a female who has been teaching sociology in two California state penitentiaries over the last four years for Hartnell Community College. I also instruct sociology courses at UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced and work for the public defender’s office interviewing juveniles sentenced to life in prison, writing social history statements in an effort to mitigate their life sentences by creating a deeper understanding of what led to the crime/s.
Semester by semester, I alternate between going into the Correctional Training Facility of Soledad, a medium-security facility often called Soledad prison and Salinas Valley State Prison, a rather notorious maximum-security institution known for its violence, arguably stemming from the inmates as much as from the “correctional” officers or gang of “Green Wall” guards as they are commonly labeled. These guards, proudly wearing their officer uniform at the beginning of their career, soon come to the realization that they are, for the most part, highly-paid babysitters that are poorly equipped and undertrained to deal with the trauma, addiction issues and violent episodes that are part of a prisoner’s reality. Yet, they stay on for the pay, the benefits, and the all-powerful prison worker’s union who lobby incessantly for stricter laws and longer sentences. Why do we pay prison guards a six-figure salary with life-time benefits while public school teachers are on the lower rungs of the pay scale? JFK once said, “our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” Our values are horribly inverted. Great minds are being wasted in prisons across the United States while schools and related educational programs remain undervalued and poorly funded.
My students, also known as inmates, prisoners, V34507, or monsters to some officers, range in age, race, criminal status, and sentence but they do have a few things in common – they are all men and surviving, as one inmate put it, in a “living hell” tormented by the minutes that seem like hours and the mundane days of depravity that slowly, somehow turn into years. Time is certainly not their only enemy. In the end, it actually may be their only friend as most, if not all, realize that the tick-tock of the clock means they are a second closer to release, or a change in-laws, a visit from a family member, or frightfully now with the COVID crisis, to a painful death that few will see, remember or find eventful.
Through teaching sociology, a subject that challenges students to think deeply about the impacts of race, gender, sexuality, and class in their lives, stories arise that give testament to the trauma, neglect, inequalities, marginalization and adversity faced prior to entry into the system of incarceration. They come from familial abuse and instability, gangs, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and entrenched violence. Some, but not many, come from wealth, mansions in Pebble Beach, military and police backgrounds, even engineers with doctorates. I spend one or two days a week with men who have murdered someone through gang or domestic violence, who have raped, molested, kidnapped, and tortured. People who have robbed, assaulted, dealt drugs, were addicted to drugs, on and on. Over my 6 years of going inside prisons and jails, I’ve instructed men of all different criminal backgrounds who are set on the path of transformation through higher education, a most treasured opportunity in prison. As a sociologist with a passion for radical compassion and equal justice, I read hundreds of sociological autobiographies, leading to the proceeding conclusions.
When you go into a prison or jail, you will see that there is a wide range of reasons people are there that can be summed in one or two words – murder, gang involvement, rape, second-degree manslaughter, etc. Behind those criminal sentences is a complex tapestry of social and environmental conditions and failures that led up to the point of incarceration, subsequently doing a hard time in a state or federal prison. It’s as if society is a web, where we are all interconnected through our shared lives and functions and those that end up behind bars are stuck in the web, like insects waiting to be devoured. In a punitive setting, it is the prisoners who are stuck, stagnant, and sacrificed to the prison and all its related industries. In this disorienting space of captivity, isolation, and mundanity, there is little to no room for growth and the reasons why people end up in cages remain unaddressed in our societal web. We just keep on spinning the same problems, catching the most vulnerable, marginalized, and traumatized in this systemically sticky web that inevitably captures those that don’t fit into the narrow confines of our patriarchal, white supremacist societal structure.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, now imprisoned for 44 years, says, “ignorance is the root of all crime.” Ignorance is also at the root of mass incarceration. If only the more privileged among us in society understood the complexities of the lives before incarceration, could get closer to the men, women, and children inside, and see how harmful prisons are in the US, we would be one step closer to prison abolition through compassion and knowledge as the atrocities of the past collide with the dysfunctions of the present. You will see penal institutions filled with people of color, a reminder that prisons are nothing more than modern-day plantations where the state is the master and the prisoners are the slaves, enduring a slow social death, stripped of all rights or abilities to be anything but the one thing the system designed them to be – a property of the state, a prisoner, a criminal. It is our own ignorance and apathy about the systems and institutions that run our lives that have created mass incarceration, unknowingly caging the most powerless, uneducated and disenfranchised among us.
In the words of the modern-day hero and civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, “…the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” He goes on to say there are four things necessary to confront injustice in America: getting close to the issue, changing the narrative, fighting homelessness, and getting uncomfortable. For the last 4 years, and 2 years prior as a volunteer with TRUST in San Quentin, I did all of these things yet the injustice continues because no matter how loud I shout, how many students and courses I teach, how many tours I lead or discussion forums I plan inside the prison, very little changes. It is important to note that the university students that participate in my prison courses come out changed and deeply committed to working with the incarcerated. One example would be a young college student who was molested by a family member in her early years. I brought her onto the yard where most of my students at the time were sex offenders. She sat down to facilitate a small group discussion on the book, Just Mercy, and from that day forward, she discovered a profound empathy for the incarcerated and is now a director of a non-profit working to amplify their voices. She obtained, through getting close and uncomfortable, a place for forgiveness, and a way to move beyond the confusion and pain she’d carried for years.
Places of incarceration are built out of sight, largely inaccessible, with few ways to see in and a slew of rules and regulations to visit. We aren’t meant to get close to prisoners. The popular and political narrative about who they are is biased through media coverage, false messages about safety and security as well as inflammatory shows that paint criminals as dangerous, violent people. his results in the existing, narrow assumption that criminals are, at the core, bad people who do bad things. That is simply isn’t true. Furthermore, it is important to note that quite a few people imprisoned, even put on death row and murdered are also innocent and for that, there is no greater stain on our country’s tapestry of lies and injustices.
What happened to George Stinney Jr in 1944 makes me sick to my stomach as I imagine his family’s fears as he was unlawfully arrested for raping two white girls and put on death row at 14 years old, his only crime being that he was black. The United States of America electrocuted a 14-year-old child for something he didn’t do. The electric chair was too big for his small frame as he weighed less than 100 pounds and was barely 5 feet tall. He had to sit on books to reach the headpiece and when the switch was flipped, the convulsions made his mask fall off only to expose this child’s face stained with tears and beginning to smoke. 70 years later, it has finally come to light that he was innocent. Is there a greater crime than that? Isn’t this revelation enough to create an uproar in society?
The George-Stinney’s in our society exist, past and present. They are the Central Park 5. They are the thousands of black and brown juveniles confined in youth prisons at rates 5x that of white youth. Juveniles end up behind bars not because they are evil children but because they are raised in a society that would put a 14-year-old innocent boy to death without blinking an eye. Stories abound of my students, raised in poverty in low-income housing with less than admirable education and little to no parental supervision, turning to gangs for any semblance of acceptance, love, and companionship. Most of my incarcerated students are black and brown ex-gang members who, at the core, aren’t bad people. In fact, they are the most dedicated, intelligent, thoughtful students I’ve had the pleasure to teach, and learn from. They are also extremely depraved and unloved and deeply regret the choices of their youth.
I have a man in my class, “T”, who was severely molested by his aunt from the age of 5 to 10 years old. He wrote in an essay that the things she made him do to her will haunt him his whole life. But no one believed him or took action when he was finally brave enough to tell his story. His mom was addicted to crack, his dad imprisoned, and his teachers didn’t seem to find the time to help. Even CPS was called but they didn’t remove him from the home. At 12 years old, “T” joined a gang and finally, for the first time in life, felt safe. A few years later, he was coerced into killing another gang member and for the last 25 years, he withers away in a maximum-security prison, like a wounded animal. He has taken every self-help class offered including GRIP, Freedom Within Prison Project, and Victims Awareness. He obtained a GED and an Associates degree, never having a disciplinary action against him in 2 decades. But still, we cage this child in a man’s body who never really had a chance, to begin with. Should we care about him? I do. I’m disturbed thinking about how he is currently suffering in prison and how much good he could do for the world, especially sexually abused boys, if only he was released.
Another student, Albert, hobbles into my class with a cane. At 65 years old, he is serving an 85-year sentence for robbery. He tells me every time he sees me, “Megan, I’m so dang proud of you for doing this.” And I tell him the same thing back. He already has a bachelor’s degree but is taking associate degree level classes for something to do, to get out of the cage, and continue on the educational path. He was married 50 years before his wife, his one true love and soul mate, died of cancer alone. Albert never had a violent offense but was convicted of three felonies for burglary and with the notorious and shameful “3 strikes law” he ended up with 85 years at 50 years old. Such a kind, gentle man who worries about his 3 children left with no parents in reach. He lives with back issues as the cold steel beds are not meant to sleep on year after year. He tells me stories of men getting raped in their cells after months of lockdown, desperate for touch, maddened by isolation, and lack of movement. He cried when he said goodbye at the end of the semester as we had become close as a teacher and student often do. I worry about him and the many others sentenced for life for non-violent offenses.
The last story I will tell you is about Anthony Ray Hinton. His remarkable book, The Sun Does Shine, tells the tale of how he was wrongfully convicted at 29 years old and sentenced to death, also just for being black. He missed the death of his beloved mother, never enjoyed a long-term relationship or was able to raise a child, go to college, or enjoy the milestones of young and middle adulthood. His entire adult life, during his peak years of maturity and growth, was stolen by the state of Alabama and our judicial system that clearly cares more for people that are white and rich than poor and black. He endured the smell of burning flesh as his friends on death row were murdered, one after another, some fighting for their innocence until their last breath.
There is a minimum of 9,900 innocent people wrongfully convicted each year in the US, according to a study done by Ohio State University. More so, 1 out of 9 people on death row are innocent and we still continue to put incarcerated people to death. Most people on death row are black and brown who were raised in places that the everyday American wouldn’t dare set foot in at night. What we did to Anthony Ray Hinton is a disgrace, and I say we because we are all complicit when we don’t use our place of privilege or common experience to affect change. I feel ashamed of this country and our system of “Just-Us” that is a mockery, grossly disproportionately punishing people of color and with drastically longer sentences. How would you feel, as a black person, being tried for a murder you didn’t commit by a white judge, a white prosecutor, white police officers, a white public defender, and an all-white jury, destined to the lose the race before it even starts?
Sonya Ruth Taylor wisely states that “we will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” Given the unsustainability, cruelty, and utter ignorance of prisons, jails and detention center this should be the beginning of the end for the prison industrial complex in the United States which is rooted in exploitation, inequity, and fear and whose branches consist of disconnection, rage, pain, and a complete detachment from anything that resembles nature or a natural way of living.
Exposure to nature is a human right. Prisons aren’t places where you find grass, trees, shade, animals, the sound of birds, or freshwater. There is a fear that weapons or paraphernalia could be hidden there and rightfully so. Instead of denying the incarcerated access to nature, why don’t we fix the institution that is breeding and creating the hostility through animalistic and outdated policies that don’t reflect our true human instinct of compassion and forgiveness?
We need to end mandatory, extreme sentencing, criminal enhancements, and flawed judicial processes including bail, jury selection, trial, and final sentencing. In my opinion, no one should have a sentence for over 10-15 years before having a chance to go to a parole hearing to show rehabilitation and positive change. Solitary confinement, lockdowns, and two people per cell also need to end immediately. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must switch their name around and put rehabilitation at the front and center of operations. Did you know that the Department of Corrections only added Rehabilitation to the institution as of 2004? What is offered now in terms of rehabilitation is meager at best and continually getting gutted because of “lack of funding” even though the operating budget for CDCR for the fiscal year 2018-2019 was $15 billion of which taxpayers contribute $857 million. Believe it or not, the most valued rehabilitation programs at prisons in urban or suburban areas are brought in for free, by dedicated volunteers.
In sum, mass incarceration can be encapsulated up in one word: waste. Wasted lives. Wasted talent and skills. Wasted opportunities. Wasted resources. Wasted time, energy, and money. A complete waste where the offenders are now victims, suffering behind closed doors. How many community centers and non-profits could be built across California with $15 billion? How much crime could actually be prevented with that money instead of paying for post facto punishment? Look at the gang violence, homelessness, family separation, 60,000 children in foster care and ask what mass incarceration has cost our communities per year. The price is $15 billion but the overall cost is so much higher.
Mark Twain once said, “It is far easier to fool a person than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” To be convinced means they have to listen and to listen they have to care. Apathy and indifference as well as greed and selfishness are rampant in our society or else we as a nation would notice that we are brutally hurting and traumatizing people who have spent most of their lives in rhetorical chains, imprisoned by poverty, abuse, addiction, and neglect. What individuals need in prison settings is help, plain and simple. They need people who care about them enough to show them dignity and compassion. The Norwegian people call prisoners “our future neighbors” and they treat them as such with access to nature, unlimited family visits, edible food, exercise, a room that isn’t the size of a toilet stall, and more. They realize that most prisoners will be released, as they should. Would you feel safer knowing that your previously incarcerated neighbor was treated with dignity and care while in prison or do you feel more secure knowing that he/she was viewed as a monster and treated as such?
I urge you to think deeply about our system of punishment and begin to participate in the best way you know how to affect change. The restorative justice practices sweeping through schools should also be implemented in prions, jails, and detention centers. A central theme to restorative justice is the promotion of the growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one. As a person who has made a number of terrible and harmful decisions and mistakes, I’m grateful for the fact that we do, as humans, change. Nothing is permanent. Who we are at 16 years old is not the same person we are decades later. Along with our significantly changing biologically, we also hone our ability to handle adversity. Impacted by our own inner conviction and exterior conditions, we change and evolve, for better or worse. Extreme sentences and incarcerating people for life denies this basic fact – we change, evolve, grow and mature. While prison is the most stagnant and unnatural environment for growth on the planet, those who are strong enough to survive and maintain their sanity and dignity manage to find a way to rise. Instead of looking down on the previously incarcerated, they deserve much credit for enduring the inhumanity of incarceration.
How do we move forward from here with the knowledge, compassion, and inspiration to create change? First, we need to defund, de-incarcerate and invest in community programs that support those most likely to end up in prison. Just recently, in an unprecedented move, North Carolina approved to redistribute its budget to repair the historic and current harm done in Black communities. The resolution passed by the City Council read “The resulting budgetary and programmatic priorities may include but not be limited to increasing minority homeownership and access to other affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategies to grow equity and generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice.”
Grants and low-interest loans should go to those invested in building up their communities, not in a white-washed way but one that honors their culture and community needs. The leaders of this movement, at least in part, should be previously incarcerated folks that are committed to giving back to their communities. The goals and dreams of my incarcerated students are quite moving as their sole wish is to make a positive difference in the world. Why not have people sign a contract that they pledge to work to repair an issue directly related to the crime/s through joining a certain organization or non-profit within a year upon release? For example, a woman getting released from prison with a history of addiction will commit herself to work with women in drug rehabilitation and connecting those women with their children. Investing in social services, non-profits, volunteer organizations, and the like that are focused on solving community and societal issues is key to ending the school to prison pipeline as well as the projects to prison pipeline.
Coming back to a promising change rippling through society, restorative justice in prison is a future-oriented approach based on hope and healing, concerned mainly with the lives of those surviving while the retributive approach we have now is simply focused on the past, seeped in shame and regret. In our current system, we ask questions like, “What law was broken?” and “How can we punish them?” Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks, what happened in the life of the offender? What happened with the crime? Who has been affected? How have they been affected? And how can we (together) restore what was lost? Instituting restorative practices in the criminal justice system can and will create a more harmonious, healthy, and empathetic society.
For justice in the prison, a microcosm of society, we also need restorative justice practices transforming the way the administration views criminals and criminality, breaking down racial bias and stereotypes through something like ‘accountability circles’ or ‘equity groups.’ Like outer society, blacks and other minorities in prison are punished more harshly than whites and during the COVID-19 crisis, white prisoners, especially juveniles, are being released at an alarmingly much higher rate than their darker-skinned counterparts. Everyone knows by now the history of genocide and slavery in our country that exists today in different yet still shameful configurations of white supremacy. A student of mine, incarcerated for life without parole for robbery, explains it like this:
“As I sit in the courtroom, shackled, I sit shackled with others like me, dangerous produce of an environment destroyed by poverty, unemployment, underemployment, poor education, and fatherless homes. What I am experiencing is nothing other than modern-day slavery. It’s as if I’m at a slave auction watching prisons bid on my body from state to state. Good ole young, strong stock. The courtroom is the auction grounds of the trade…Prisons being a function of the criminal justice system are big business in America. Open 24/7, 365 days a year. The stock trade will never decrease or deprecate because there will always be people who look like me, shackled at the slave auction called a courtroom, looking at my family, who pray I get a good deal as I inevitably head for the plantation to re-enslave my poor black ass.”
Do you agree that prisoner’s lives matter or should matter? As we are part of an interconnected community, they matter deeply and urgently. The incarcerated and formerly incarcerated have incredible potential to be agents of positive, transformative change in society. They are not monsters or the epitome of evil, and if you think they are, then you must believe people are incapable of change.
By and large, prisoners are suffering in silence and fear, living in contaminated filth and disgrace while the rest of the country believes our safety rests on the unfreedom of others. I will tell you one final thing and it is this: our safety and security rests in fixing the many broken institutions in this country, beginning with the family but also schools, the church, military, the government, and last but certainly not least, the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration. Releasing the millions of people who are caged in this country will not harm you or your children, especially if we insist that prisoners are treated with dignity and a direct focus on rehabilitation, restorative justice, equity, and accountability. In the disability rights movement, the slogan is “nothing for us, without us.” The 2.3 million people incarcerated are part of the solution and need to be heard, seen, released, and finally set free from this system of punishment that is nothing but cruel, harmful, racist, classist, and an ever-growing stain on this country, both historically and now. It’s time to transform prisons into places of justice, transparency, and ultimately, love.
Megan McDrew is a faculty member in the UC system with UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced as well as an instructor at Hartnell Community College and 2 prisons in South Monterey County, committed to helping the incarcerated obtain AA degrees. She also works for the public defender’s office in Santa Cruz assisting with juvenile Franklin hearing statements. She’s also sitting on the Advisory Board for the United Black Family Scholarship Foundation. A yogi at heart, she teaches yoga at the VA in Marina, CA. Last but not least, Megan is a freelance journalist for SPAN, a State Department-funded e-zine based in New Delhi that focuses on Indian-American education issues.