by Emile DeWeaver
A fellow writer sent me a New York Times op-ed about prison reform; she wanted my opinion as an incarcerated American. Former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin wrote it to highlight why the country needs to invest more resources into rehabilitative and re-entry services for incarcerated people. His message mirrors the TED talk he gave when he visited my prison this past January.
It’s hard for me not to applaud his message, because the short term effects of his claims and those like them have transformed my life. They saved my life, given that only two years ago I was “never going home,” but after last year’s legislation on parole for youth offenders I face the possibility of parole. I’m personally grateful for the prison reform sweeping our country, but I’m also morally troubled by the rationale behind the calls for change.
My problem with most of the conversations I hear about prison reform and reintegrating incarcerated people into society is that they focus less on the actual people struggling to make amends and succeed in their communities and more on why society benefits from a parolee’s success. This focus is a logical result of the stigma that demands deprivation for incarcerated people. This stigma supports a political clime that requires arguments for prison reform to appeal to public safety of economics.
Both Rubin’s op-ed and his TED talk at San Quentin advocates helping formerly incarcerated people thrive by removing barriers to employment, providing assistance transitioning from life in prison to life in free society, and by offering them college-level classes before they leave prison. While Rubin does acknowledge the humanity of the people struggling to reintegrate into their communities, his take home message is about economies. As Rubin puts it:
Of course these investments cost money, but come with a significant return. Because efforts to help people make a successful transition back to mainstream society both reduce recidivism and equip former prisoners to be effective parts of the workforce, it will help our economy in the long term.
I understand why Rubin chooses the fiscal approach. One, he’s an economist. Two, common wisdom holds that he’d be shouted out of most town halls in America if he focused on criminal’s needs rather than the immediate needs of the society they violated. I get it; it’s counterintuitive to show compassion for a person who’s in trouble because he or she failed to show compassion. Still, failure to focus on the human element of prison reform is problematic.
Marne Gottschalk, Professor of Political Science at UPenn, writes about the problem in her article Razing the Carceral State:
The fiscal approach to penal reform is wholly inadequate to tackle the wide range of problems associated with the emergence of a tenacious carceral state that is … perverting what it means to be a citizen in the United States. It slights the compelling civil and human rights arguments that the carceral state raises as it removes wide swaths of … historically disadvantaged groups from their neighborhoods, leaving devastated families and communities in its wake.
In other words, we need to reform prisons because our current practices are immoral. The arguments based on fiscal concern allow us to close our eyes to a deeper, no doubt more uncomfortable issue: the problem isn’t just criminals but our long history of cruelty toward vulnerable people.
Rubin’s recommendations to help formerly incarcerated people are expedient and sound. I object to his rationale, but does the reason for the progress need to be as legitimate as the goal, i.e. lower rates of recidivism and incarceration? I think rationale does matter. Making progress due to unsound reason conjures the image of a guy walking in the right direction with his eyes closed. He might be travelling in the correct direction, but invariably, over time, he’s going to stray off course and become lost. Likewise, if we’re pursuing prison reform with our eyes closed, we may thrive in the short term, but eventually we’ll break our noses on walls.
I think we are off course, mainly because I hear very few people arguing the obvious. We need to stop locking up so many people; we need to stop giving people prison terms that amount to civil death certificates because the practice is wrong. Because the children suffering from the incarceration of their parents matter. Not because these children will be less likely to commit crimes if we treat their parents like human beings, but because the children will be more likely to grow up and contribute to our economy because they matter.
The urban communities in places like Oakland, California that are disenfranchised when their citizens are incarcerated and counted in censuses as citizens of the rural districts where prisons are built, these communities matter. Because people incarcerated must matter—if humankind is to continue to matter—and because any time we create tools to throw people away, we create tools for tyranny.
Tools are neutral. Intent and purpose belong to wielders, so tools that can throw one class of people away can just as well be turned to throw anyone away. Gottschalk gives a close-to-home example of these multi-uses:
The historical evidence is overwhelming that racial animus and the quest to preserve white supremacy have been central factors in the development of the US penal system. But as the racial order continues to invent new ways to target blacks, it has generated punitive policies and practices that diffuse to other groups in the United States, including immigrants, impoverished whites, and people charged with sex offenses.
In America, crime renders people disposable. For whom else do we make tools to dispose—terrorists, right? President Obama announced his intent to bar people on the terrorist watchlist from owning guns. I’m extremely pro-gun control, but this is another valuable example about the nature of tools. No guns for people suspected of terrorism may sound like common sense, but who goes on a watchlist is a matter of judgment, and it’s a judgment made by an appointed official who isn’t directly accountable to the public.
I know a guy who’s been on a terrorist watchlist since he was a kid because his family was political and connected to organized crime. I was listening to Democracy Now on the radio, and a staff member’s six-year-old kid is on the no-fly list for inexplicable reasons. On the same show, they reported that some Muslim families were placed on no-fly lists as a punitive measure—because the families wouldn’t agree to be informants. The FBI branded the Black Panthers as terrorist, and the truth is that a terrorist is whoever the right (or wrong) official deems a terrorist.
Imagine the kind of world a terrorist watchlist yoked to gun control could create. One the policy is immunized by the Supreme Court—the same way the Supreme Court has immunized the police practice of pulling people over and searching their cars on little pretext—the government will be able to disenfranchise targeted populations. One Black Lives Matter protestor throws a bottle at the increasingly militarized police, and the whole group and anyone who associates with them could find themselves on the list. No guns for you. One pro-life extremist guns down a doctor, one militia occupies a national park; these events could fuel the disenfranchisement of millions of citizens. No guns for you.
Indulge the novelist in me and imagine it gets worse. Terrorist networks become such a problem that you must stay within the boundary of your state until Homeland Security clears your name. And don’t object too vehemently. America has perfected a tool for neutralizing angry citizens: prison, a tool to throw away human beings with the consent of the people.