Prison reform was never going to cut it 


When individuals are convicted of a crime — whatever the law considers wrongdoing — there’s little doubt where they will be sent to next: one of the United States’ nearly 1,700 prisons, 1,500 juvenile corrections facilities, or nearly 3,000 jails. Prisons are imbricated in the American imagination as a just conclusion, a catharsis, a picture-perfect resolution to wrap up this week’s episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” There exists a massive media apparatus wherein over 200 shows on network television exhaust the narrative of cops catching the bad guys and sending them away to prison. Thus, the story ends.  

A wide and growing margin of Americans support degrees of reform to the criminal justice system, with polling by the American Civil Liberties Union indicating that 91% of the population perceives “problems” within the institutions of policing, sentencing and incarceration. As such, it’s certainly not true that our attention for a group that is cast as dangerous and delinquent by the legal system stops as soon as they are inside – especially for people with incarcerated loved ones or activists trying to free wrongfully-imprisoned persons. At the same time, proposed reforms to this system range from ineffective to outright coercive and violent. This is a function of an American political imagination limited by the confines of party platforms and spot-treatment solutions for broad societal problems. Liberal solutions to criminality, which encompass both Democratic policies and Republican non-policies, either call for an improvement of prison conditions and sentencing or a heavier hand dealing harsher punishments as a way to deter crime.  

For both, prison is uncritically maintained as an immutable, permanent fact of society. Liberalism assumes prison and police are preconditions for the state instead of products of it, how it is run and the class who runs it. The logical consequence of this order is that reforms aiming to improve conditions in prisons necessarily require their maintenance; they flood investment into the machinery of caging people in the form of money as well as public relations. The 2018 First Step Act, the watershed bipartisan legislation pushing criminal justice from under the Trump Administration, required the annual authorization of $75 million in funds for five years in order to implement sentencing reforms and training for prison guards, as well as curb abusive practices against incarcerated people. According to this legislation, $375 million dollars should have been spent on prisons, not on solving well-documented root causes of crime such as poverty and inequality. Reform is effectively feeding the beast to tame it instead of slaying it altogether.  

A grotesque example of the ironic extremes that centrist liberalism can take is a recent bill proposed in the Massachusetts legislature by Democratic representatives Carlos Gonzales and Judith Garcia that seeks to give incarcerated people the option to reduce their sentences by donating organs and bone marrow. When you view it at a surface level, HD 3822 sounds innocent, even progressive. In a sleek Twitter infographic, Garcia presented “An Act to establish the Massachusetts incarcerated individual bone marrow and organ donation program” as means to “restore the bodily autonomy” of incarcerated persons; however, prison as an institution only exists to deny bodily and economic autonomy to those inside. Restoring autonomy in a meaningful sense in this instance would require granting inmates their freedom of movement, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The superficial and paradoxical language surrounding the bill aside, HD 3822 has been criticized by ethicists as inherently unethical due to it practically authorizing the sale of organs, only in lieu of money, the value of organs is time — six months to a year off their sentence, specifically. 

Framing this coercive program, which incentivizes sacrificing parts of your body for less time inside as freedom of choice, is both deeply deceptive and horribly cynical; it is also perfectly compatible with other exploitative elements of incarceration. Prison labor gives incarcerated people the “opportunity” to work and pay off debts and costs they may incur during their sentence. Less rosy is the fact that prison labor pays “13 to 52 cents per hour,” which is grossly insufficient to pay the price of incarceration that states like Connecticut enforce upon inmates. Yes, people literally have to pay to be incarcerated. 

News stories that comes out of prisons are usually, to paraphrase the meme, man-made horrors beyond our comprehension. For example, incarcerated people in a St. Louis jail had to break windows, set fires and facilitate a mass escape to protest negligence of jail authorities over the spread of COVID-19 among jailed persons. Sexual violence and inmate abuse by authorities — solitary confinement being a prime example —  run rampant in prisons. It is overtly clear that the punishments inside far outweigh the sentences incarcerated people receive during their conviction in both scale and severity. At the same time, mass incarceration has failed catastrophically at preventing crime and “keeping our communities safe.” The abolition of police in prisons may sound like a utopian goal, but it is a human necessity. Abolition proposes solving the root causes of criminal behavior to make the institutions of policing and prison obsolete, whereas reforms continue the cycle of pain and exploitation experienced both by victims and incarcerated persons. Obviously, accountability for harmful behavior is a necessary pillar of society; however, can we trust a state that holds over two million people captive in abusive, non-rehabilitative conditions to take accountability seriously? The answer is a resounding no.  


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