How Did We Get Here? By Matthew Cook
There’s a group of people in my country that are raped and sexually assaulted at what is reported to be at least 25 times the rate as the rest of the population. It is thought to be a much higher number because of the widespread underreporting due to threats of violence if reported. However, this isn’t a secret. We know about it. We as a society just don’t care. In fact, we care so little we make jokes and laugh about it. Jokes about these people being raped appear in all forms of our pop culture from Hollywood movies, to music, to stand up comedy, to even the children’s cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
You’re probably thinking this is the part of the story where things get better. They don’t.
A clause in my country’s constitution allows for this group of people to be subjected to slavery. We take full advantage of this clause. It’s not the chattel slavery that built my country but that we now find unsightly; it’s a much more palatable form. We pay them just enough in order to not feel guilty about it. On average they make $3.45 a day. We tell them the work is helping them build skills so they can get a real job like us once they’ve deemed themselves worthy to integrate into our society, even though we’ve passed laws making sure they can’t.
How did we as a society get to the point where we’re so desensitized to violence that we don’t see these people as humans but as a punch line to a joke. A joke where they are raped and we think they deserve it. How did we get here? Better yet, how do we get out?
If you haven’t guessed, I am an American, and these people are the 2.4 million humans currently incarcerated in prisons and jails across the USA, and I believe we get out of this situation by bringing that number down to zero; by completely abolishing prisons.
To fix a problem it’s helpful to look at how the problem came to be. The prison system has seen three massive growths in the USA. I’d argue the first and original growth could be blamed by a lack of creativity and the more recent second and third growths can be attributed to racism. But let’s take a more critical look into both of those causes.
The most recent large scale growth started in the 1970s with the popularization of the “War on Drugs.” While many thought this was a good idea at the time, we have come to realize it’s complete futility in helping to curb drug addiction or preventing overdose deaths in our communities. We’ve also found out about the racist rationale behind that push for the war on drugs when a Nixon Administration official admitted:
“We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The racist motive behind this war on drugs has played out exactly as planned because even though whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate, blacks are more than 3 times more likely to be arrested.
The second biggest growth in the prison system was even more racially motivated and came right after the emancipation of slaves. The 13th amendment bans slavery in all cases except for the enslavement of a person who is convicted of a crime. With this added clause a wave of anti-black laws were passed allowing recently emancipated slaves to be turned back into “legal” slaves. These laws and the need for a cheap workforce after emancipation led to the astronomical increase in over-policing black and brown communities that we still see today. These anti-black laws were the transition from legalized chattel slavery to Jim Crow laws, which eventually transformed into the racist and violent “justice” system we have today. The “justice” system that will imprison 1 in 3 black men.
We need to come to terms that our “justice” system was created to oppress minorities and as the system expanded it has only become more efficient and more overarching in our society. It has become so ingrained in our culture that we have gotten to the point where it’s normal to cage humans and we can’t think of any other option to control human behavior deemed undesirable. We find it normal to imprison people of color at extremely disproportionate rates and acceptable to destroy black and brown communities for a false sense of security. We need to come to terms with the fact our “justice” system is racist in order to fix it, but I doubt we will. I doubt we will because it makes us uncomfortable to admit both our active and passive roles in this oppression. I doubt we will because we’re a country with so much racism, but somehow no racists. I doubt we will because of our white fragility. I doubt we, as a nation, will care enough to get rid of prisons because they’re inherently racist, even though we most certainly should.
The original major growth of the US prison system, and maybe the most impactful on the entire world, was shortly before the American Revolution and was a result of a lack of creativity. In both the USA and Europe it was rare for someone to be held against their will except for political or religious offenses. If you committed a criminal offense you might have been held in jail for a few days while you awaited trial but then if found guilty you were given your punishment and went on your way. These punishments were usually fines for small offenses or often you were subjected to a punishment of public shame. Public shame was an effective tool for conforming behaviors to community expectations during this time period. As communities grew into larger towns and cities, public shame started to lose its effectiveness as a way to curb behaviors. As a result, the Quakers decided punishments should be turned into long-term confinement in prisons. It was a simple fix, but one with lasting and damning unintended consequences. Prisons aren’t an effective tool to conform behavior to community expectations. Prisons are a tool lazy societies use in order to not take a critical look at their foundational problems. If we wanted to stop crime, we wouldn’t cage criminals, we would fix the factors in our society that push people to commit crimes. In the USA, we’ve had a mass shooting 1624 times in 1870 days. That’s almost one mass shooting every day. After each mass shooting, we throw the shooter in prison, but we never talk about the fact that 98% of these mass shootings are committed by men. If someone assaults a woman we throw them in jail, but we never talk about the fact that every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted. These crimes keep happening, whether we imprison people or not. The problem isn’t random crazy criminals. The problem is our society produces criminal behavior. Locking up a murder doesn’t stop murder. Locking up a rapist doesn’t stop rape. Locking up a drug addict doesn’t stop drug use and it doesn’t cure addiction. Prisons don’t stop crime. Prisons don’t deter crime. Prisons produce crime.
If the emotional humanistic plea to do what’s right and abolish a racist institution doesn’t convince you, I’ll make the logical utilitarian plea that abolishing prisons is the smart, rational thing to do. I’ll make the plea to our “we can do anything” American attitude, that “hold my beer while we put a man on the moon” mindset. This is just another problem for us to solve. We need to think big. We need to think creatively. Reforming a broken system just cements that broken system into our society. We need to abolish the system. We need to abolish prisons. Then and only then can we have restorative justice that heals our communities. Then and only then can we create a society that has both social and economic opportunities that keep everyone included in our society so that nobody is pushed to commit crimes.
A Note to the Reader:
When I first heard about prison abolition I thought it was dumb and naïve, but the more I read about it the more convinced I was of how important it is to fix our communities and heal our society. It’s been a long journey for me and I hope this article will be one of the many steps you take in your own journey towards prison abolition.
I encourage you all to do some self-reflection about prison abolition. Redefine what crime is to you. Is victimless crime a crime? Why are some drugs illegal and others sold for profit? Why do we feel the need to punish? What is the most productive thing to do moving forward after harm has been committed? Is punishing a person going to help the victim? Why are some communities over-policed and over-incarcerated? Why are children tried as adults? Question our school boards why they need to have a police officer in a school and why school offenses are referred to the legal system. Question why you personally feel the need to punish others, whether that be in schools/in prisons/with your children and family members/with friends/with partners. Question how society has impacted you to think that punishment is the only way to right a wrong and how that idea has affected our society and you individually.
Here are some of the resources that helped me in my journey to becoming a prison abolitionist and I hope they inspire you as much as they did for me: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, and The End of Prisons: Reflections from the Decarceration Movement by Mechthild E. Nagel.