Exploratory Number Three for Me
The corrections system (prisons, jails, juvenile halls, probation and parole) presents the single most pressing structural impediment to reaching what could look more like equality in the United States. Some see equality as an unattainable objective or, one that if reached, would make us all Harrison Bergeron from the Vonnegut short story (‘…finally, everyone was equal….’). The corrections system is built and operated with our shared tax dollars. To expect this system to not be disparate in reach and impact is in fact a reachable and Constitutional goal, even here in our non-fiction universe. With this and my larger goals in mind, I have been reading The New Jim Crow, and listening to lectures by the author, Michelle Alexander; this semester has been a deep dive into understanding the current corrections system as an expansion of slavery.
Our corrections system is an economic engine dependent on the labor and torture of prisoners, and breeds depreciation of the Constitutional Rights every American is born with the assumption they enjoy. Her point can be summed up thusly: there are more black Americans now under the control of the corrections system than were ever enslaved. Our current structure is, in her words, establishing a new ‘caste’ system, ‘capturing poor, mostly non-white people.
To understand the extent of such social exclusion, include in your long thought this tidbit: “At midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem” (Bureau of Justice Statistics). It may be that people who purposely commit crimes belong in prison; are we being effective or fair when we lock up people whose behavior was largely influenced by mental illness? Being a former felon, mentally ill or not, excludes people from taking full part in American society. This is acceptable, apparently, to the vast majority of my neighbors.
The fact that there is even a federal Prison Rape Elimination Act speaks to the horrifying nature of life inside prisons; the fact that only Maine and Vermont currently allow everyone, including incarcerated citizens, to vote needs to be seen as equally horrifying. If the major changes many experts see as necessary throughout the system are to ever take place, the right to vote must be seen as primary. The Supreme Court recognized this in a 1964 decision, Reynolds v. Sims, saying:
“…undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized....”
Through public policy or personal attitude, we have historically forbidden or just plain discouraged participation by current and ex-felons in the voting process.
Social exclusion is a process, a prospective process by which people are prevented from engaging in similar opportunities with access to similar resources, or from asserting their rights. When people are disenfranchised or alienated from society, the community surrounding them also suffers, because the full potential of individuals within is not being reached. This can be seen in the effect of our corrections system. Former felons are much less likely to participate in the democratic process (or be allowed to), much less likely to network in the business community (or have the skills to), and more likely to endure material and familial hardship.
The corrections system exists to socially exclude those who have been adjudicated or convicted by a jury of their peers. The prescribed due process of law indicates in these cases some past behavior implying an inability to comply with the necessary rules of civilization. The stipulation here is clear, and debatably fair: serious crimes deserve serious consequences. Prison is supposed to be that serious consequence. Those neighbors of ours who are not in prison must not to be subject to this legalized discrimination. Those who commit crimes directly related to untreated mental illness must also be seen as and treated as equal citizens. Stripping anyone of their preservative rights should only be done in the most extreme instances, if ever.
Social exclusion causes ‘a substantial reduction in pro-social behavior’ and “rejected people are capable of self regulation but are normally disinclined to make the effort.” Society wants something but creates the opposite. Add to this mix mental health issues that go mostly untreated- unrecognized but for stigma and profit- and the prison system is a mass growing on our Constitution. Rational people with a reasonable morality will see this as true.
Looking for a solution when the starting assumption is ‘there is no cure’ is overwhelming, frustrating, and exciting. There is no ‘cure’ for crime; there is no existing functioning alternative for prison. At a macro level, to ‘fix’ the prison system, what with its CCPOA’s and CCA’s, is not feasible. The tradition of treating, and having someone to treat as, other, is deeply ingrained in must be called the American psyche. What we can do, perhaps, is implement some rather simple, almost commonsense solutions. I have a few I would like to share as further salvos in the effort to reach equality in America.
One: add the rate of recidivism to the rate of incarceration in each state. Rank them. The states whose combined total is 1-25 shall be taxed at a level 15% higher than the states in the bottom 25. Corporate tax, income tax, let the policy wonks work out those details. But challenge states to compete with each other to incarcerate the fewest people, not the most. And feed 8.1% of those tax monies to the states who are succeeding. Incentive!
Another macro-level attack: a mandatory mentoring process for everyone who wants work in the criminal justice system. Not just a few weeks in training or an AA in the field—months working inside institutions to ensure the applicants have the required emotional and social skills to do the job. In this idealistic view, prisons and jails will be filled with only the most dangerous and truly deserving people, staffed by qualified recruits.
States with admitted Eighth Amendment problems, such as California, ought to institute an additional penalty when officers of the state commit new violations. If prison truly is a deterrent to those who might chose to break the law, then let us see those who are chosen to enforce it are held to a higher standard.
Anyone with a criminal conviction ought to receive free health care until such time as their integration with society allows them to participate in the state or federal exchange.
Another? A Constitutional Amendment asserting that the right to vote may not be infringed upon until death.
One more: if someone is arrested and charged with a crime, a full mental-health panel must be convened; only appropriate placement should take place. This would require a wholesale restructuring of the system and our understanding of justice. I am not confident that the restorative justice train has gained enough steam nationwide to smash through this glass.
These are not altogether feasible ideas. Neither are they absurd. But as a student, my bullhorn only reaches the ears of interested parties. I am much more capable of accomplishing more micro-level decisions, making connections outside of my normal wheel. This includes teaching tolerance, acting out, speaking up—in my case, making more presentations re: life inside prisons, and my personal struggles with integration. This is showing support for the victims of the system, and the goal I share with my wife is to unite resources with people struggling to integrate.