It frustrates me that so few prisoners in this unit seem able to see any connection to their own lives in debates about law enforcement, race, and class struggles in the wake of Ferguson. The indifference of my fellow inmates is so maddening because much of the discussion is thankfully centered around criminal justice reform, with people all over the U.S. currently focused on public policies and laws which affect different communities unequally. It is hard to imagine a better moment in time for informed conversations concerning the real effects of policies which too often never see the light of day in public imagination and discourse.
I understand the point of view which resists the idea that any problems at all exist within the American criminal justice system. After all, there is a strong emphasis on individualism and individual responsibility here which stretches back to our pioneering ancestors. I myself committed a serious crime in my youth, taking a life which can never be restored, and I have repeatedly affirmed what I believe most prisoners will also admit, that those who do wrong must be held responsible as a part of our response to crime. Humans have an almost instinctive understanding of this concept. For instance, even as children we learn that when we steal it is wrong and our family will discipline us, perhaps sending us to the corner to stand or having a cherished toy taken.
Yet what family will take its beloved but misbehaving child and banish them to some far corner to stand forever, never to return? Implied in punishment should be the intent to bring about a better outcome, and a better behaved child who be welcomed back to the fold as a functioning member of an improved family. If our policy instead was to permanently banish the child or only allow his return as a limited member who can, say, sleep at home but cannot eat meals with the family; we must recognize in such treatment of the offender a permanent negative value judgment. We only treat a family member this way who was by nature deficient, who lacked the potential to function properly, or who inspired more fear than love.
Today, this kind of negative character judgment is built into our criminal justice system. Our policies imply the belief that some people by nature are apt to commit crime; that they lack the ability to function as members of our law-abiding human family. Viewed this way, the role of the law, of law enforcement, of our prosecutors and courts, and of our detention and supervision methods is to reach out and find the defective ones among us, to watch, punish, and detain them, and to stop them from harming others and themselves.
In a culture so enamored of individuality, such a role for our system seems to make sense. Now we have enforcement and sentencing policies which ruthlessly carry out this program. So confident are we in our ability to root out the criminals, label and deal with them as it is necessary to treat such dangerous animals, that we now routinely lock away youthful first-time offenders for the majority of their lives, only allowing them to escape the system when they are old, if ever. We have sought out and identified in our state alone more “bad apples” than the total prison population of the country of Australia. And we know that they are bad apples because they have committed a crime, and anyone who would commit a crime must be by nature a defective irredeemable product from our human factory.
Right now people in our nation are starting to realize something is not quite right with this process. When you personally know someone who has been caught in the net of our system, it becomes evident what a tragic mistake it is to judge a man or woman as defective and irredeemable based on one act, or one time period in their lives, usually when they are young. And if you are very poor and happen to be a minority or both, you cannot help but see how our system applies its justice unequally. If you are none of these, you may be among those in our country who feel nothing is broken about our system, a position much easier to defend when you don’t live in one of the poor regions targeted most intensely by law enforcement.
Looking at prisons is essential to shed light on this debate. A process has been taking place inside Tennessee prisons which mirrors what has made people so angry in our country. Right now, I live in a disciplinary unit where men who are judged dangerous have their jobs and most of their outside contact stripped from them and where they are concentrated together under the most intense conditions of poverty, restlessness, and hostility. No matter the nature of the inmate’s transgression, or how well they were doing before their mistake, they are sent here for punishment for a length of time depending on their offense and removed from the neighborhoods of less dishonor in the prison where the men have jobs and outside support. Unlike those upper regions where inmates are generally left in peace by their peers who have incomes, and the officers who feel less threatened by the “good” inmates, in the lowest region, one will witness atrocious levels of drug abuse, violence, theft, and gang activity while the inmates are constantly harassed by the officers who feel all the bad apples naturally end up here, and who therefore focus most of their vigilance in this direction.
To say that it is a matter of individual choice where an inmate resides inside the prison, is only a half-truth at best. Mobility between the different regions depends on much more than personal choice and character. However it happens that one slides down the scale from good to bad, it is much more difficult to climb the ladder than it is to fall because the conditions one faces makes it more difficult to avoid further writeups, and those conditions are created only in the context of the punitive policies which are ironically implemented in the name of promoting good behavior.
So this zone takes up its place along a continuum of zones corresponding to our judgments about the nature of some people who belong in them and what enforcement punishment policies are necessary to control them. Authorities refuse to acknowledge that their own policies have anything to do with the increased problems in these areas, choosing conveniently to place the blame on individual accountability alone. In prison, the bad apple theory reaches its pinnacle practically unopposed. In fact, at this prison, the inmates in each zone wear wristbands color-coded to the unit, and an inmate's nature is commonly judged based on the color of the band alone. My comments about past regimes who used similar techniques on populations gathered into ghettos are not appreciated. I am not a bad apple. For anyone who knows me, the thought approaches absurdity. Yet I am a man who will defend myself as any man will, and as such I am walking a razor's edge every day trying to function while avoiding getting into trouble with an authority who knows what conditions we face here and callously blames the whole situation on individual responsibility. And I may succeed in making it out, but I have extraordinary advantages most don’t have. Just like the exceptions who make it out of bad neighborhoods and succeed out there, my example will only prove what it takes to rise above the rule. The rest may well curse me as they drown in bitter resentment.
This pattern of judgments about the nature of some individuals, and the policies enacted to control them should seem familiar to those engaged in the debate post-Ferguson. It is the same pattern which is repeated like a fractal inside each prison, inside the TDOC as a whole (determining whether inmates go to “good” prisons with at least some opportunities or “bad” prisons where conditions are wretched), and outside the prison system where some communities continue to be the primary targets of broken window policing and simultaneously the inheritors of a legacy of economic and educational devastation in the wake of race and class struggles reaching back in history to before the Civil War and seemingly woven into our societies fabric. It is all the same practice of power justified by the erroneous belief that some people are simply defective by nature, a belief that can only exist alongside a tragic ignorance of the way the conditions one faces in life limits personal freedom and makes a mockery of the classic view of opportunities for mobility in the U.S.
Departments of corrections defend their policies by describing the monster everyone fears, the criminal, the boogeyman; and when I watch men victimizing one another every day, just like many prisoners, I am tempted to curse some of my fellows as well. But I live in danger myself, and even so, I can see the humanity in all but the worst men around me. As hard as it is to understand, only the extremely rare sociopaths are exempt from a certain pattern seen in those I’ve met who seem to be unrepentant lost causes. Namely, from one angry broken man to another, they feel justified in what they do because in their hearts deep down it seems clear to them that before they turned on the world, the world turned on them first.
As Michelle Alexander has pointed out, it is the last resort of the most desperate to embrace a negative stereotype in an attempt to turn shame into pride when no other option exists. The divide lurking beneath the post-Ferguson debate runs deeper than many are aware; it centers around history, shame, and an inability or unwillingness to imagine multiple/competing narratives across the lines that quite naturally divide localized regions. Until we penetrate these layers it will remain possible for either side to demonize the other, and when we cannot see the humanity in one another progress is impossible.
I wonder now whether we will ever be able to make the connections which will humanize the exchange and make progress possible on a problem stretching this deep into our history. One thing seems certain to me; as long as those with power to enact policies are allowed to do so across the barriers if imagination that make it impossible for us to see each other as human beings, as long as those safe and comfortable and prosperous have no place in their hearts for the cries of those they fear and do not understand, and as long as we cannot even be honest with ourselves about our own history in a nation with deep, deep wounds still fresh and bleeding, healing will escape us.
I challenge the notion that communities should not be trusted to respond to crime responsibly and humanely in the context where problems occur and when the parties involved may meet with some understanding of common history and common interests. I challenge the notion that lawmakers should pass laws and enact policies from the capitol which will affect different communities in different ways. I challenge the notion that a vast state-wide system on the scale we see in the U.S. is more useful than harmful, much less necessary. I challenge the notion that the state and national policies which benefit some regions at the expense of others are beyond the attack of those regions and communities which pay the heaviest cost while others prosper and fall back on the lame bad apple theories that only serve to cover what is at best ignorance and at worst pure exploitation.
Our criminal justice system cloaks itself in the illusion of legitimacy, necessity, and righteousness, but that cloak disappears when we lose the lenses of fear that also hide the humanity of prisoners. Those caught in the bowels of the beast often fail to see the humanity in each other because we are kept in a divided state, degraded, hungry, and at each other’s’ throats for the scraps our masters throw at us. But no one thinks himself or his friends to be animals; it is always the other. And if someone out there has family in here, the illusion may disappear as well.
But in order to proceed forward intelligently and humanely, it is vital to recognize the false belief that some people are by nature flawed; the lie which seeks to justify ultimately oppressive policies and practices carried out in the name of justice. This pattern of belief and practice concerning certain people who live in certain zones has replicated itself until it permeates the organism of our society like a disease. Like any doctor would recommend, we must first listen to the shouts of pain and seek to stop doing so much harm. Then this disease must be identified and eradicated to allow the healing we need.