“Dead man walking” were the words that came to mind when I saw my nephew arrive at his brother’s funeral, except he wasn’t actually walking to his death and at only 19 years old, he is just barely a man. As if it wasn’t painful enough that he was attending his brother’s funeral on a prison release pass; he arrived to greet his large extended family accompanied by guards in sunglasses.
The guards held on tightly to his arms, with handcuffs on his wrists, with shackles on his ankles and wearing an orange jumpsuit. He wanted nothing more than to say good-bye to his brother and this was the only allowable option. He didn’t have a lot to say that day, but his eyes spoke volumes. He wasn’t dead, but our flawed criminal justice system is slowly killing his soul.
As a multitude of candidates begin to enter the race for the 2020 presidential election, it is imperative that we begin asking questions about their plans for criminal justice reform and their approach to reducing the number of incarcerated people in America. We need a more equitable system that safeguards the dignity and humanity of those within the system.
According to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.2 million people were held in America's prisons and jails at the end of 2016. This is not surprising, given that America imprisons more people than any other developed country. Though imprisoned people include our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our children and us, black communities are disproportionately impacted. According to the Pew Research Center in 2016, there were 1,608 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults — more than five times the imprisonment rate for whites (274 per 100,000). This disparity exists in large part due to systemic racism and depressed socioeconomic opportunities.
As an African-American social science researcher who studies group-based disparities, I am acutely aware of these statistics, and of how desperately this inequitable system needs transformation. Our criminal justice system has become another tool to maintain racial inequities and marginalize people of color. Along the way, it relentlessly chips away at a person’s dignity.
At one time there was a notion that prisons aimed to hold people accountable for their crimes while helping them change the trajectory of their lives. But Department of Corrections is now a misnomer; it does very little correcting and prisons do not aim, nor do they have the capacity, to rehabilitate their residents.
When rehabilitation programs do exist, they focus mostly on life skills and job training and pay little attention to the impact of traumatic experiences, including the experience of being incarcerated. As a result, by the time people leave prison they have experienced more trauma, have fewer economic opportunities and have lower self-esteem. Their imprisonment has likely had a negative impact on the family they return to. After release, it is nearly impossible for people to find housing, obtain employment, and to rebuild their sense of self-worth. Because a criminal record impedes a person’s ability to obtain a job and housing — two components that greatly impact recidivism — people often reoffend and return to prison. Prisons are a significant part of America’s broken criminal justice system and the continued privatization of prisons indicates that this ineffective system will continue to grow unless we intervene and elect candidates who have a plan and a vision for prison reform.
Some would argue that our current justice system is successful at holding people accountable for the crimes they commit and keeps dangerous people off of the streets. We must keep in mind, however, that currently incarcerated people eventually return to our neighborhoods, often more traumatized and more damaged than they were when they arrived in prison. No one benefits from a prison system that inflicts extreme trauma.
America needs criminal justice reform that not only includes addressing racial bias and supporting re-entry, but that also includes the implementation of trauma-informed services that strive to heal individuals with various life experiences that have shaped them. As a society, we must reframe justice and shift the way we think about those who are incarcerated.
Formerly incarcerated people may (or may not) have committed a crime, but they have served their time. They — and we — all have the capacity to be productive members of families and society with the right supports. Our communities will be better places to live if we target the root of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
As a society we must remember that the nephew, niece, son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister who is or has been incarcerated may wear a jumpsuit that says, “PRISONER,” but that is not who they are. We must hold tight to their humanity and remember that, like my nephew, they are people with talents, gifts, strengths and weaknesses. If we can remember these things about them, they may be able to remember they are not dead men walking.
Claudia Powell is a research scientist and the Associate Director of the University of Arizona-Southwest Institute for Research on Women.