The Last Call: IRT 2019 — re-evaluating the purpose of prisons


Graphic by Katherine Irving ’22 and Amanda Wong ’23.

Karín Aguilar-San Juan, Columnist

The theme of this year’s International Roundtable is “Incarceration (Un)interrupted: Reclaiming Bodies, Lands, and Communities,” putting prisons in broad, interdisciplinary and community-based contexts.

How can you prepare to join the flow of the IRT conversations? One step might be to think about this question: What are prisons for?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Prisons are for crime. People in prisons are criminals. There is some truth in those statements, but we should also look at the history, uses, abuses and long-term consequences of prisons. We need to consider which crimes get assigned what kinds of punishment. Historian Pippa Holloway shows that in the post-Reconstruction-era South, a propertied white man committing murder could be excused for a “crime of passion” and receive no prison time, while a poor person stealing a chicken was certain to be flogged. It would take much more than the 1,000 words allotted here to explain how that startling example relates to the situation today.

With the world’s highest rate of incarceration, the United States has become the focus of scholarly research on prisons — and a grassroots movement is focused on abolishing them. A few years ago, the National Research Council pulled together an ad hoc committee to study the many factors that contribute to incarceration rates and found that changing policies, not rising rates of crime, were the determining factor. More people were being arrested and sentenced, and extended sentences made sure that people stayed in prison for longer periods of time. As a result, the number of people in U.S. state prisons (where the bulk of the prison population is found) tripled from 1980 to 2010. Currently over six million people are in the grasp of the U.S. prison system, including federal and state prisons, county jails, probation or parole.   

The fact that African Americans and Latinx people are disproportionately represented in prison merits discussion and further investigation. According to the Bureau of Justice, black men born in 2001 had a 32 percent chance of serving prison time at some point in their lives, compared to six percent of white men. In 2015 black women were twice as likely as white women to be in prison. That same year, non-violent drug offenses accounted for 50 percent of the population in federal prison.

Michelle Alexander attributes “racialized mass incarceration” directly to the Reagan-era “War on Drugs.” Her New York Times best-selling book “The New Jim Crow” argues that putting black people in prison for using marijuana and crack cocaine — and then stigmatizing them for life — essentially comprises a legal, Jim Crow-redux system of racial segregation that covers itself in race-neutral language. Once out of prison, these petty drug offenders face a myriad of obstacles that diminish their access to housing, jobs, education and other social supports. What if the War on Drugs had treated marijuana and crack cocaine as a public health crisis rather than a criminal offenses, the way the opioid overdose epidemic is handled today?

Thanks to “The New Jim Crow” and also to Ava Du Vernay’s film “13th,” more people recognize the anti-black bias in policing and prisons. Hopefully, that recognition will eventually lead to change. Meanwhile, we need to address the lingering notion that prisons are okay as long as prisons are racially proportional and the crimes prisoners commit are truly violent. We need to consider whether and how U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers violate human rights. For example, is the use of solitary confinement for extended periods of time —  days, weeks, months, even years, acceptable? That means locking someone in a tiny cell with a toilet and a bed, without any form of distraction, not even a pen or pencil, never mind a phone or video games. Meals are served through a hole in the door and prisoners are forced to wear chains when exiting their cell for recreation. Psychology Today called solitary confinement “Torture, pure and simple” in January.

According to the Bureau of Justice, in 2015 there were 1,473 proven cases of sexual assault in prisons, 42 percent of which were perpetrated by prison staff. Sociologist Joshua Price refers to sexual assault as a practice of humiliation that is part and parcel of the incarceration experience, especially for women and non-gender conforming or transgender people (see his book, Prison and Social Death). Pregnant women are forced to give birth while shackled. Until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it out in 2015, a teenager as young as 14 could be given a sentence of life without parole.

If all of this happens on a regular basis, why should we be satisfied with making prisons racially equitable?

When it comes to violent crime — including robbery, sexual assault and murder — a number of people believe that justice requires an equal measure of violence in return. Judging from the popularity of crime shows, there might even be a certain amount of pleasure derived from the act  — or spectacle — of punishing violent criminals. What kind of repair would ending a life actually bring to our collective sense of resolution? Wouldn’t that act just add one huge awful link to a long chain of harm?

In 2015, there were 1.3 million people in state prisons, 55 percent of whom had violent convictions. It’s good to reform policies affecting nonviolent drug crimes. Now we need to tackle the penchant for using extreme sentencing for violent crimes, such as solitary confinement for extended periods of time, or life without parole. Excessive punishment might feel like the right thing to do at a time when you’ve been badly hurt and damaged by someone. But leaders across both political parties are now discovering that this approach often fails as a deterrent. Moreover, it doesn’t make sense to keep old people in prison, when they are no longer a threat to others.

At the end of the day, more humane ways to handle violent crime include: treatment for substance abuse and addictions, increased resources for public schools such as early childhood education, jobs, housing, geriatric parole and expanded programming within prisons — classes, mentoring, therapy, workshops and cultural activities. That’s where the discourse on “who is a criminal” returns. As a society, what resources are we actually willing to devote to improve the well-being of people whom we have already branded and discarded as “criminals”?

“The Last Call” is written by Prof. Karin Aguilar-San Juan, Anni Clark, Mandy Ortiz and Shireen Zaineb. It appears each week on the back page of The Mac Weekly.