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In The Guardian this week, an article was published noting that there had been 994 mass shootings in 1004 days. The rhetoric spinning out from the tragedy has focused on mental health, residual commentary on gun violence, and security (with some going so far as to suggest that arming more people is a step toward preventing such a shooting from reoccurring). Below are three links — two documentary and one media commentary — that tangentially or directly address issues of gun violence, incarceration, criminal justice, and mental health in our country. There are more, and we’ll share them here as part of our ongoing efforts to inform ourselves and each other as we engage in debates about justice in the lives of youth. We encourage you to share additional pieces that you’d like to include in subsequent posts.
HBO’s VICE Special Report: Fixing the System
President Barack Obama sits down with Vice and prison inmates at the El Reno correctional facility to discuss a growing human rights crisis in the Vice on HBO Special Report: Fixing the System.
Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children
Presented by entrepreneur, music mogul and activist Russell Simmons and narrated by “Empire” actress Gabourey Sidibe, this hourlong documentary investigation, “Prison Kids,” is the result of Fusion’s work. It is a story about how to take children and ostracize them, derange them, outlaw them. It is the story of America’s crimes against children.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health
John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.
When I was in junior high school, New York City public transit fares switched from tokens to MetroCards. The Metropolitan Transit Authority rolled out ads on subways and buses describing how to swipe these strange new plastic rectangles, and our homeroom teachers explained the change from the old paper student bus and/or subway passes to the new student MetroCards that would work on either form of transportation. On the plus side, we would now be able to swipe ourselves through the turnstiles instead of trying to catch the attention of a distracted (or absent) token booth attendant in order to flash our paper passes and get buzzed in while our train rolled on without us. In addition, the plastic MetroCard survived an occasional trip through the washing machine much better than the old paper pass, which I would regularly have to present in a soggy mess to the school office in the hopes that they would have an extra one to last me through the month. On the minus side, the new MetroCards were limited to three swipes per school day, which meant we had to go beg at the school office to cover weekend extracurriculars or other trips.
Recently, while attending a meeting, I was reminded of this experience from nearly two decades ago, particularly that vivid feeling of dismay as I pulled my jeans from the dryer and felt that familiar lump in the back pocket. While discussing transition services, a woman who had previously been incarcerated mentioned that many people she knew had gone into prison while the city used tokens, and come out to MetroCards, which they had to newly learn how to use. Although that shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, it struck me as an example of how completely time in jail or prison disrupts every single aspect of a person’s life. For a New Yorker, reminiscing about the old days of tokens and paper student transit passes is the same sort of nostalgia-inducing experience as reminiscing about when we had to go to the library to get books for school projects before the internet, plan get-togethers at least a day in advance before cell-phones, and, of course, walk twenty miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to even get to the local subway stop to take us to school. How strange it must be to go away from one world, only to reappear years later into an entirely different one without any sort of warning.
Back when I was a teacher, many of my students got arrested. One bright, kind, funny boy disappeared one winter, and arrived back in class months later, near the end of the year, just days before the science fair which I was organizing. Of course, he had no project; his partner had simply done it without him. I wondered how this child had benefited from missing an entire semester of school, from simply appearing at the end with an incomplete posterboard.
The term “reentry” implies that a person can somehow enter the same metaphorical room again, and go back to where they were before getting arrested. But the reality is that a person who has been incarcerated is newly entering a world that has moved on without him or her. That person is traveling into the future, to where the subway no longer takes tokens and the science fair is already happening.
Where there is an issue, diverse actors are affected. How is the voice of the community valued? How do we consider and support members of family and friends? How can we value narratives behind the stigma?
The following powerful testimony is in the voice of a woman who regularly visits her husband in jail. Her narrative denounces the unfairness of policies; specifically, policies that generate structural violence that are deeply rooted in state institutions. When an institution is mostly responsible for stigma and stereotypes, what are the strategies to advocate for human rights and human dignity?
She exposes her feelings in terms of what it means to be a wife, what it means to love, what it means to love a criminal. She stands up and voices her concerns; how many families are experiencing stigmas because a family member is in jail? What kind of support can they find?
The Lover and the Guilty
“Pilot-apartments” are set up in some jails so that prisoners can meet their family with intimacy… There must be only few in only two or three jails. The Centrale of Poissy is one of them, and I am interested because I am married since 1989 to a “perpète” (nick name for life-sentenced).
This project is justified by longer sentences with security measures. We do not question the heaviness of punishment, which becomes more and more heavy. All prisoners do not have access to family visit units (FVU) given the small number of units (two or three for three hundred prisoners in Poissy), where access is very rare for the largest number to benefit. Normal parloirs (visiting hours), will whereas, be very rigorously monitored with punishment for “indecent behavior”. Only a few privileged have regular access to FVU, from which is fostered shenanigans, haggling, and jealousy.
Where the shoe pinches for us, Parloirs’ women, is that softening the punishment seems so good to take … The leftist project now gained to security, and especially the arrival of a hyper-repressive right wing, however, should make us think, think to be wary. We are forced to cut us in two: the lover and the guilty.
We should now rightly fear the scarcity, or even the end, of conditional releases. By way of “half-liberty”, what it offers families is a half-detention. Opinions of Parloirs’ women are never asked: That’s why I give mine.
DUZSKA MAKSYMOWITZ, (translated into English) In Mazoyer, F. (2003). La fin de la vie privée. In Manière de voir 71. Le Monde Diplomatique, October-November 2003, p.45
Duzska Maksymowitz was married for twelve years to a “perpète” now free; she is the author of “Femme de Parloir”, L’esprit frappeur (editor), Paris, 2000.
Through her writing, Duzska Maksymowitz is an activist for women’s dignity and women’s rights. She voices the taboo of loving a prisoner. She voices the taboo of being a family member of a criminal; she voices the concerns, the challenge and the experiences that women, wives, mothers, sisters, or children are facing when a close person, family member, friend or lover is imprisoned.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story (video below). It seems to me that the biggest danger of a single story is that the story isn’t factually incorrect; in fact, there is probably evidence to support it rather than evidence against it. And that’s the danger. You have one small piece of the truth, so small as to be, potentially, completely misleading. You may be in possession of a single outlier, of the exception that proves the rule. It’s true. And yet. It’s also not.
So when I saw this video on the making of the Three Strikes laws in California and various other states, it seemed like an excellent example of the Single Story Fallacy. Any particular crime could not have happened if the individual who committed it had been already locked up (or incapacitated due to disease, accident, freak attack by a rabid raccoon). That’s a single truth, about a single story, about a single crime. So a logical response to that single story might be to incarcerate or otherwise incapacitate anyone who may ever potentially commit a crime.
But the problem is that the single story exists among many, many other stories. Infinitely many stories, perhaps. And one story out of infinitely many is, mathematically, insignificantly small. There are the sad stories about lives that are disrupted, even destroyed when a person is cut off from family, community. And there are the happy stories about people who broke the law but then went on to lead happy, ethical lives for all sorts of reasons. Why not pursue those stories?
- The Making of the ‘Three Strikes’ Laws (NYTimes)
- The Danger of a Single Story
“[T]he young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.”
This line jumped out at me as I read this recent New York Times article (link below). I have heard, and used, many variations on this argument over the years when trying to convince people that putting children in prison is not a particularly great idea. Basically, the idea is that kids and adults are fundamentally different. Therefore, while it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons, children who have been convicted of crimes should experience something different, administered by a more forgiving, nurturing, juvenile justice system.
But where I have been getting stuck lately is the implication that it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons. It started as a bit of an age problem—do I really believe that eighteen year olds have all the wisdom and maturity of my 94 year old grandfather? Would I feel more comfortable if the age to be tried as an adult were raised to 21? 25? At what point do I actually feel that putting people into adult prisons is helpful for both the person being incarcerated and society as a whole?
So lately I have been wondering if age should be such a major defining feature of our justice system. As far as I can tell, our justice system is based on the idea of individual responsibility and punishment. At some point, someone becomes solely responsible for his or her actions. At that point, that individual Deserves To Be Punished for any crimes or transgressions.
The United States incarcerates the highest percentage of our population of any country in the world. As of 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated over 2 million adults in state or federal prisons. People have begin poking at the edges of this problem—too expensive, too many nonviolent offenders, too many mandatory minimum sentences, too many drug related cases. But we always seem to leave a center, a group that is, at the end of the day supposed to be in prison. The really violent, incorrigible adult criminals that we seem to assume are out there and need to be behind bars. But who are these people, really, and what evidence do we have that we are all better off when they are removed from their families and communities and put into the sort of conditions that we no longer think would be acceptable if they had only been a few years younger at the time they committed their crimes?
- A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons (nytimes.com)