By: Madeleine Sackler, Kareem Biggs Burke and DeAnna Hoskins
As the protests against police violence continue, and as more and more people recognize and ponder the oppression and violence that so many face, we cannot forget people in prison.
Too often, people who are incarcerated are ignored — especially people who are incarcerated with crimes that are labeled violent — in the conversation about systemic oppression. But all men and women who are incarcerated today must be remembered as we consider the ways in which our society creates violence. Every single day, these men and women are living in an oppressive, violent system that we have legalized.
The prison system — the backdrop of our so-called ‘justice system,’ of which the police departments are only one part — rests on punishment: a system of retribution and brutality, rather than a system of community healing and compassion. And so, it provides us an important window into oppression in America.
Our culture largely assumes that punishment and incarceration are universal and natural responses to someone who has caused another harm, and that, especially for violence, this is the correct choice. But prison was not always a foregone conclusion. In fact, incarceration as we know it was only established relatively recently.
The concept of a “prison” grew out of a growing distaste for public punishment, usually violent executions, and the desire for an alternative was building in the 18th Century. (Although, the last public execution held the United States was as late as 1936, and over 20,000 people attended.) People (including prominent people like Charles Dickens) were growing weary of the public stonings, hangings, beheadings, and burnings and began discussing other ideas. It was at this time that the idea of building a place to hold and to punish people for long periods of was spawned.
The prison idea was hotly debated by people including Benjamin Franklin. Many were concerned: how would human beings fare in captivity, held in cages like animals? Would it work as a deterrent? Would it successfully rehabilitate? Would it be worth the enormous cost to build and run?
They began building some to try out the idea, and in the 1790s, the first prisons in America were. People like Alex de Tocqueville traveled from around the world to study our prison experiment and more than 300 prisons were built around Europe, South America, Russia, China, and Japan. America exported the idea of incarceration, which incorporated concepts like solitary confinement in three meter-wide cells, hard labor, and enforced silence.
But these prisons were riddled with riots, suicides, disease, and people going mad, self-mutilating, and more, and that didn’t work for the people running them. So, people began trying to amend parts of the experiment to see if it would succeed: and thus was born “prison reform.”
They tried different methods that might better keep order, prevent riots, prevent people from going mad in solitary confinement. Walls were built higher, chain gangs moved inside the prison walls so they could be hidden from uncomfortable passers-by, solitary confinement cells made a little bigger, and visits with loved ones and other people in the outside world forbidden.
As we tinkered with our prison experiments, the initial question — whether long term imprisonment was the correct choice — slipped from our minds. It was only seventy-five years later — 1865 — when we passed the 13th Amendment. This amendment is lauded for abolishing slavery, but there was another phrase after it that institutionalized incarceration; it permitted “involuntary servitude” as a punishment for crime. From then on, prisons have largely been accepted as a part of our society and its system of social justice without question.
Today, 155 years later, we have ample data that points towards the fact that this experiment has gone on long enough. Prisons do not make us safer; they generate high rates of recidivism, cost our society $80 billion (policing costs $63.2 billion more), continue to foster violence and human rights violations, cause lasting harm to our communities, and punish people of color disproportionately.
Over 25% of the world’s prison population is incarcerated in the United States. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world and that isn’t by accident. And studies like one by the Alliance for Safety and Justice have shown that the majority of people against whom crimes have been committed would prefer the criminal justice system to focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation through education, job creation, and mental health treatment. Out of those surveyed in this study, two out of three were themselves let down by the justice system, expressing that they did not receive any support after the incident — and of those who did, were far more likely to receive it from family and friends than from the system.
So, who is punishment serving?
We know now that there are alternatives to punishment: restorative justice, education, mental health care. In simplest terms, the alternative to a culture of punishment — whether looking at a police department or at a prison — is compassion.
In 2020, 155 years after legalizing involuntary servitude, we can decide to make a new choice: to change our so-called ‘justice system’ from being punishment-based to healing-based.
Prison abolition sounds crazy to some — but so did many of the policies that we are suddenly seeing represented in the news of the protests today: defund police departments, stop building jails and prisons, shift to humane-based systems. And there are countries around the world that are already working on this new model, for example in Germany, the Netherlands, or Greenland. The only punishment is the removal from society; after that, everything is about care, solving the root problems that led to the action, and getting the person safely and productively back into society.
Maybe we are at a moment where maybe we can finally make the choice to let go of our failed prison experiment and start a new one. An experiment of restoration. We must begin to shrink the country’s capacity of incarceration and ensure that any facility be mandated to provide treatment and services associated with the root problem.
As Franklin Cox, a friend and an actor and filmmaker who is incarcerated, said to me on the phone from prison, “Who has replaced Dr. King or Malcolm X? When people mess up, they need love. To fix the problem, we need love. People mess up and the world is crashing down on them and they’re getting more punishment, more hate, instead of love. And when you have people filled with hate, you have them do things they wouldn’t do if they were filled with love. It’s all about love for the person next to you.”
Madeleine Sackler is an award-winning filmmaker and the founder of Great Curve Films. Most recently, she directed two films inside a maximum-security prison: O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and Theothus Carter, an incarcerated actor, and the documentary It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It, which was co-directed by 13 incarcerated men, who used the film as a vehicle to explore their memories and how they ended up with long prison sentences. Both films were acquired by HBO and Hard Truth was recently nominated for an Emmy.
Kareem “Biggs” Burke is an entrepreneur, record executive, and co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records. He is an active member of NCS Inside, a national ministry organization that helps create and facilitate the restorative process throughout the country, centered around the current marketplace and job creation. He is an executive producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary, It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It.
DeAnna Hoskins is President/CEO of JustLeadership USA, the only national organization founded and operated by directly impacted individuals that is committed to cutting the US correctional population in half. Previously she was the Sr. Policy Advisor for Corrections/Reentry and the Deputy Director of the Federal InterAgency Reentry Council at the US Dept of Justice.