Monday morning at the local jail looked like a madhouse. The line to go through security was out the door, as usual. People were crying in the halls. Attorneys dressed in suits, waiting to talk to their clients. But if there was one thing immediately apparent about the jail, it's that most of the people behind the bars are people of color. Most of them appeared to be black men.
I went to the jail frequently one summer. I interned at a state public defender's office and part of my job was to visit clients in jail and gather information to support their cases. The county jail holds people for a year or less; anything more than that and the person is transferred to the state prison, a few hundred miles away. People are also held there if they are awaiting trial and did not get out on bail. The people I worked with were accused of everything from theft to sexual misconduct to assault. And I was always able to find something redeeming or interesting or relatable about them.
During my visits to the jail, guards would search me thoroughly. They had one of those impressive security scanners, like the ones used at the airport where you have to raise your hands above your head. If an inmate made any unexpected movements, someone would jump on him. Occasionally an alarm would sound, for who knows what reason. The distant echoes of screams were commonplace, became part of the Wild West-like conditions of the facility. I was told about stabbings, about the everyday violence that happened inside. Gangs formed based on race and what part of town you grew up in.
Many of my clients had a difficult time getting medication for their longtime illnesses. Mentally ill inmates would often act out and get sent to isolation, which made everything worse. Suicide attempts were common. These were only a few things that happened there everyday. And this was only a county jail!
Whenever I left the jail, I felt like I was being let out of a cage. I felt enraged that anyone had to stay in a place like that, ever.
Our criminal (in)justice system has spiraled out of control. The United States has the largest prison population in the world. We have a system where most people who are charged with a crime either go to prison or plead guilty. And guess who the people being charged with crimes overwhelming are? Poor people, people of color, and people with mental illnesses—often all three. 58% of the prison population is comprised of people of color, while they only make up 25% of the US population.
Once charged, the romantic idea that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty is essentially devoid of meaning. In my experience, there is presumption of guilt. In a functioning criminal justice system, the accused must be proven guilty by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt. In practice, the burden is usually shifted to the accused to prove that he is not guilty. This is a big deal. Aside from this burden shift, people accused of a crime are pressured into taking a plea bargain. And all this is handled by public defenders who face scarce resources and enormous caseloads.
All this to say: we are sending an overwhelming number of black men to prison without a fair process. But then I'm often asked: "What if those people are guilty, shouldn't we still send those 'criminals' to jail?" The answer to that is still no, because the prisons we currently have are atrocious places where some of the worst human rights violations occur.
Once you go to jail, here is a sampling of what you might encounter:
- Estimates vary, but the Bureau Justice of Statistics suggests that up to 20% of juvenile prison inmates are sexually victimized, and 10% of adult inmates.
- Denial of basic healthcare.
- High chance of being assaulted, even by the guards supposed to protect you.
- The inhuman practice of solitary confinement.
Aside from the conditions of a jail, when you get out, your chances of returning to jail are nearly double the rest of the population. There are usually two main goals of prison: to punish and rehabilitate. If the point of prison is to purely punish a person, we do that several times over. If we are trying to rehabilitate people to be re-integrated into society, we have completely failed.
But it isn't just anyone we are punishing. My anecdotal experience of looking around and seeing mostly black men is reflective of what is actually happening in society. Prisons disproportionately contain black men from low-income backgrounds. More than that, we have a system that institutionally targets that segment of our population through the entire process from arrest to prosecution to trial. And yes, this all connects to feminism.
My favored explanation for what makes someone a feminist comes from Gloria Steinem: "A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men."
The two key words here: Equality and humanity. That means, to be a feminist, you shouldn't promote inequality and the stripping of a person's humanity. In our current criminal justice system, sending someone to prison does exactly that. How can a system be equal if there is an enormous difference in the racial composition of the prison population? How can a system be humane if we deny prisoners their basic needs, like food, safety, healthcare, and adequate shelter? What is the purpose of such a system if it only punishes and punishes with compounded interest?
Of course, eliminating our prison system is a radical idea to many. I've read a lot of articles recently that popularize the notion that people who committed crimes are "escaping" justice, specifically in the situation of rapists going free. But once a person is arrested, he doesn't escape the system easily. I think we need to separate the exceptional cases from the rule. We have a "tough on crime" mentality, even though the violent crime rate has been going down since the 1990s.
Like many women, I am scared. Scared of dark streets, of strange men, of the possibility of a violent encounter. Perhaps not having prisons would allow for these men to wander the streets, prey on other unsuspecting victims. But overriding my fear is the thought that the system in place now violates the dignity and basic human rights of the people around me.
Maybe the alternative is a truly just system, with safeguards in place to ensure people are treated humanely. Maybe the alternative is to stop putting a band-aid on the wound and to treat what is causing the blight: poverty, racial tensions, wealth inequality. Maybe the alternative is focusing on rehabilitation and not punishment, like many European countries do. But whatever the alternative is, that shouldn't stop us from opposing the current system where atrocious human rights violations occur everyday.
Sending people to prison perpetuates inequality and takes away a person's humanity. No human being deserves that. If feminism means we believe in the equality of all human beings, then sending a person to prison, no matter what act they committed, is unsupported by feminism. Rapists, murderers, thieves: the current US prison system is not a place we should send even the worst human being.