In prison I often look around myself and wonder why our citizens accept this state of affairs. Mass incarceration is a tricky puzzle and an expensive problem in our State. Like other states, we have packed men and women into prisons as quickly as we could afford to build them without much thought for what the prisoners would do inside these expensive containers. Gone are the days when every prisoner was expected to have a job or take a class. There aren't enough opportunities to go around. No doubt the Tennessee Department of Correction would portray it otherwise, but in the unit in which I live, unemployment hovers around 80%. Drug abuse, gambling, gang activity, and violence are the order of the day. Our governor and the TDOC commissioner would rather folks not know this, but to be fair, this situation has been building a long time. Having watched it evolve firsthand, I can actually sympathize with the challenge they face. The system is fast-approaching a breaking point similar to the crises faced elsewhere in our nation. This is particularly due to a shift in focus on incarceration.
The concept of rehabilitation is an outdated artifact left over from another era. I don't know why this fact hasn't further penetrated the popular consciousness. Experts and textbooks acknowledge that we no longer concern ourselves with what prisoners actually do in prison. The focus for some time has been simply to increase the capacity of beds in much the same way a burgeoning corporation may increase its market share. We have abandoned all attempts to help an inmate improve, despite the fact that the vast majority will be released back into our communities.
Rehabilitation as an operational goal of incarceration began with the first large prisons in Pennsylvania and New York. It is debatable whether prisons have ever rehabilitated, thus the constant appeals for reform from prisoners and advocates that have understood from the beginning that these institutions do more harm than good. In the name of rehabilitation, countless men and women have suffered unsafe forced labor and the psychological damage of solitary confinement.
As long as people believe prisons are helpful to prisoners and necessary to protect society, the place of prisons in our world is safe. However, as soon as we start researching, pulling back the veil, so to speak, or if we or a family member spend time locked up, a different picture emerges. We begin to see just how damaging prisons are not just to inmates, but to the soul of our entire society, and we cry out for reform.
The changes that have come to the American system of punishment have not altered the landscape in any meaningful way. We can see this by noting that the critiques offered against prisons in the early 1800's closely resemble the protests of modern reformers. As Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish, "It is time to look deeper than ever before into this puzzle and to demand more fundamental changes than have yet been seriously considered.
From the inside, it seems clear that the obscene number of people incarcerated for increasingly long sentences in Tennessee bears no relation to an increased threat of crime. Rather, our unprecedented prison population represents a conscious choice to crusade against people who suffer from complex but identifiable conditions that are inevitably associated with crime, such as poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunities for work that pays a living wage, and self-medication.
Politicians have misrepresented to us that crime could be legislated away without looking deeper into the root causes of crime. We have been content to treat symptoms without diagnosing the underlying disease. All the while, we shovel millions of dollars into the money pit that is the criminal justice system/prison-industrial complex. So many resources are wasted in vain pursuits. Is this really the only response to crime we can come up with? Are we so obsessed with the myth of individualism that we cannot be made to care for other members of our community? Are we content to throw people away as though they were nothing? Are you content to let people like me rot in a state-sponsored human garbage dump?
Every person I have ever met on the inside or outside has a story, a family, caregivers, lovers. What the legislators make view as human garbage is of infinite value to someone, somewhere. Yet the law will not see the positive or the potential for good within a lawbreaker. It can only treat that person according to his or her worst deed. The criminal justice system is a weapon forged against the elements of society that we do not understand because we have had neither the courage nor the love to look at them.
We fearfully cry, "But look what they've done! Look at their guilt! We must be protected from them!" We act as though every one of the 2.3 million people that are locked up in America made a well-reasoned, conscious choice to commit a crime. Without diminishing personal responsibility, we should also acknowledge that the vast majority of these people would not have willingly chosen a life centered around crime or violence, all things being equal. People who are strangled by poverty or addiction are not autonomous in the same way as middle-class, educated people are. Yet we have been content to transplant whole neighborhoods of poor, young, minority men into prisons. These young men were caught up in the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and their fathers and uncles and cousins are waiting to welcome them to their final destination.
What hope of rehabilitation is there for the young man who did not know his father, and due to a learning disability and a failing school system, never learned to read? What hope of rehabilitation is there when his childhood was one extended nightmare of violence, abuse, and neglect? What hope is there when his only chance at belonging to a family came from a street gang? Laws that are passed by upper-middle-class white people cannot account for these narratives.
In the end, prisoners and their families must come to understand that together, they can organize and form a political body to advance their interests, proclaim their narrative, and make their collective voice heard by a society that has for too long been at best apathetic and ignorant, and at worst sadistic and hateful. No longer can we afford to toss people away by the millions merely based on the legal concept of "guilt," while other members of society are in fact guilty of greater sins. Our response to guilt should not be more destructive than the original harm done. No longer can we settle for treating crime as a disease when it is in reality only a symptom of deeper social ills that we have left untreated for generations. Taxpayers must hold our governor, the TDOC commissioner, and our legislators to a higher standard and not let them get away with funneling millions of dollars to corporate interests while spewing cheap, "tough-on-crime" rhetoric.
We do not merely need reform. We need a new criminal justice paradigm. It is time to dream and act.