Mandy Gardner writes:
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis writes that in the U.S., “it is as if prison were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death.” In other words, we take prisons for granted. we no longer question the necessity of their presence.
Certainly, I considered prisons and their short-term corollaries, jails, an inevitable part of the landscape when I first arrived in Albuquerque seven years ago and started teaching at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center aka the “Albuquerque Jail” on the city’s west side. Prisons and jails – including this one which houses 2,500 men and women at any one time – were just “there.”
The U.S. prison population has exploded from 200,000 in the late 1960s, when Davis first became involved in anti-prison activity, to more than 2 million today According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009 more than 7.2 million people were under some form of “correctional supervision,” meaning in prisons or jail or on parole.” That’s more than half the number of cancer survivors living in this country today.
In an issue of Radical Teacher devoted to “Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex,” Dylan Rodriguez, professor and chair of ethnic studies at the University of California Riverside, writes that “the rise of the prison industrial complex is in part a direct outcome of the liberal-progressive ‘prison reform’ successes of the 1970s.” Perhaps well-meaning complaints about overcrowding, for instance, resulted in new prison construction rather than alternatives to the established system. Meanwhile “outrage against preventable deaths and severe physiological suffering [yielded] the piecemeal incorporation of medical facilities and staff into prison protocol,” Rodriguez writes.
From this perspective, the prison-industrial complex persists as the result of prison reform, itself a liberal invention.
After reading Davis, Rodriguez and other theorists, I began wondering about my role in the jail. Was I inadvertently contributing to the perpetuation of a system which I believe creates more wrongs than it rights? And maybe more importantly, what did the inmates themselves think? I’d had hints of their likely responses over he past six-a-half years but, at sessions conducted in August, decided to ask them outright: “Do we need prisons? Why or why not?”
The assignment was not an original idea. In fact, two other contributors to this special issue of Radical Teacher posed the question to their students in an adult high-school completion program for formerly incarcerated adults in Chicago. And had I not read this article from teachers Jessi Lee Jackson and Erica R. Meiners – which reported that students often did not think prisons should be abolished – I would have been surprised at the answers I received here in Albuquerque.
All but one of the responses I got favored keeping prisons in some form or another, or at least for certain offenders. Here are some examples, all from women who have had long criminal histories:
Don’t really know . . . Yes for serial killers or just plain sick fuckers but then again I think maybe they should die if there’s no rehabilitating that individual. Every man I’ve ever loved is doing time, from my grandfather before his death and now my father’s doing life, my boyfriend who’s done more than half his life and now who’s been out of most of my children’s life over pity assed bull shit. Can’t seem to put it behind me. Life goes on but it seems like time behind these cold assed brick walls goes on too. What to do? I don’t know. All I do know is how to do time and really sick of this time doing, me and my whole family — Desiree Dominguez
I think we should have jails ‘n prisons. It’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty but unfortunately it’s guilty until proven innocent. I think that a lot of the correction officers need to realize that we are still human, that we’ve made a mistake somewhere in life but that doesn’t mean that we are below them. I think it should be more rehabilitation for those with drug habits. It should help us prepare our selves to join society. — Carolyn Harris
I think the jail system is full of shit but is needed because there are some people that need to be incarcerated. There are some places that put people in jail for dumb reasons and the ones that need to be locked up are runnin around free.
There are some jails that really treat the inmates like shit and it’s not right. The correction officers are heartless and act like they run the whole place and they shouldn’t be like that because all they run is their sorry ass mouths.
If there wasn’t jails around the world would probably be a mess and killing and some more shit going down. So, yeah, I think they do come in a little handy. — Julie Gonzalez
I do think we should have prisons but I believe it should only be for serious offenders such as murderers and child molesters and rapists. I believe they put a lot of people in prison that don’t belong in prison, such as people who just violate probation. I believe they should be more accurate in who should really be there. They should offer programs or different solutions, especially when the crime is not that serious but just cause you violate conditions that some PO puts you on, they want to throw you in prison when the original crime isn’t even prison material kind of crime. — Jacquelyn Barela
My first thought is where would we put a rapist, a child molester, a mass murderer and the list goes on. Certainly there is a variety of crimes and many different circumstances to each and every individual crime. I feel that there should be different types of places for different types of people. I don’t know a whole lot about psychology and different types of studies done on individuals. There must be a type of person who would kill just to kill because they have no regard for life. They simply hate people. Should they not be placed together where maybe they can figure out why they feel the way they do.
Rapists. Do they rape because they are angry, have control issues, are afraid of intimate relationships? Whatever their reason shouldn’t there be a place where they can figure this stuff out.
Is there any one person whom there is absolutely no hope for?
Should a drug addict be locked up for feeding their addiction?
I guess I feel that there must be some type of therapy for every individual in some type of group setting and if it must be in a lock-up facility no one should ever be treated like an animal. Our rights must be fought for and no one should ever be given up on or forgotten. — LeeAnne Teahan
Yes, in some cases we do need prisons, more so for people that commit violent crimes. I feel they need to be put away. A lot of times these people need to be locked up.
But then again I feel that some crimes, what would jail help with if they need help? For me, jail hasn’t helped do nada but hurt me. It hasn’t helped me do nothing at all. It’s just a waste of time. I would rather be doing things to get my life together than sitting here 24/7 and doing the same thing every day which really ain’t nothing at all. I don’t see how doing nothing with my life in here is helping with getting my life together out there. I guess I don’t know really what else to say.
What would help me out there? I could see my kids every day, at the same time, go to counseling and drug rehab without having to wait hours to see somebody. I could get appointments done and go to school and get my house back together cuz sitting here ain’t helping with any of that. Half the time we got to wait till they’re good and ready to see us. I could also get put back on all my meds instead of only one plus I could eat a lot better than what we do here. I have a lot more support out there and I could call someone to talk to or go visit somebody instead of writing or be charged to call and get advice. I could call my PO and talk to her. I just feel like I can’t do nada to help myself just sitting here not doing anything. It’s a waste of time and space. It don’t help get anything done. All I’m doing is wasting time instead of doing what I need to get my life back on track. — Antoinette Hernandez
Yes, I feel we do need prison. I also feel we need to stop just throwing everyone in them. Prison is not always the correct solution and is often abused as a auick fix.
Prisons nowadays are filled with many oversentenced inmates and/or inmates that would benefit more from a hospital or rehabilitation environment.
I feel prisons should be a place to sentence violent offenders – murderers, rapists, molesters. Not for self defense cases, drug or money offenses.
I know a man who has been sentenced to prison for 16 years for selling drugs to provide for his 10 kids. The same week a police officer was sentenced to five years of probation for raping a handicapped woman in front of her son. I strongly feel the sentences should have been switched.
I have a hard time being here in jail. I am not guilty of the charges – contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I did steal to provide for my kids in a desperate time but I would never encourage my kids to do the same. I would send someone like me to a rehabilitation type environment rather than prison, being I am not violent or a con artist.
I resent being under the same ceiling as an inmate who can murder her own child with her hands when all I wanted to do was provide for mine. It makes me feel I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t – justice???
I also strongly feel prisoners should be given the option to serve our country in time of war. A type of admiral community service which I feel also another option rather than prison. — Nikkole Faust
Yes, we need prisons. Some people do deserve to be locked away. I believe those who are imprisoned should be people whose crimes have majorly affected the lives of others and while doing such crimes know exactly what they are doing and how their crime affects another. I don’t think people should be put in prison because another person said so and so was involved in this crime. Those in prison should be people who are a danger to society and can’t maintain an active role in society. Some people in here deserve to be here, others don’t and then there are the few who need psychiatric help and need to be in an institution so they can receive the exact help they need. — Elizabeth Martinez
Personally, I don’t think prisons are the answer to helping or straightening people up who have done wrong. Locking them up in cells almost all day solves nothing. Many people are repeat offenders and end up right back there, some, even most of their lives.
An alternative might be some type of group home placement that specializes in helping people back to the right track, some type of program but not locking people up and keeping them there for long amounts of time.
I, myself, am stuck here in jail facing a lot of time most likely. And I am locked down for long periods of time. And I have heard that when people are locked up a lot, they become “institutionalized” and can’t manage to work their way back into society and end up back in the prison system.
I believe that if given the chance, resources and help, they REALLY need early, maybe even as early as childhood or their teenage years, they can be helped and prisons will not be necessary. Yes, there are very violent case or high profile case and they should be dealt with but not locked away and forgotten. Maybe if the government took their time to help its people instead of just ignoring them and locking some up, then we wouldn’t need prisons. — Ashley “Khaos” Gibson
Of course we need prisons. Where would we put wife murderers, people that would only continue to kill if on the streets? There are alternative places for small-time offenders, people trying out marijuana, jaywalkers.
Yes, I deserve to be there. The system, the people in it were inordinately kind. It must have taken great patience to let me not attend pre-trial for so long. They finally had to come and get me. No handcuffs, no rough behavior, just kind people seeing if they could help me and that I know is not always the case.
I was breaking the law by not attending pre-trial. My counselors waited a good month before having someone come out and bring me in. — Suzanne Springer
Only one writer categorically rejected the idea of prison, a woman who has a mental illness and was trying to work out a deal with the “system,” whereby she would be taken to the UNM psychiatric unit rather than get arrested whenever she encountered the police:
Jail and prison can be compared to a dog pound.
Inmates are collected and transported in a vehicle separating them from the driver, housed under lock and key and fed meager, low-quality food. Although supervised, inmates receive no outside contact and can occasionally be bailed out by loved ones if the desire and financing are available.
The worst offenders, often violent, are euthanized for the protection of society. Others are “adopted” by parole and monitored much as a microchipped pet.
Meanwhile, the dilemma remains: Do we need prisons?
Would you want your dog in a kennel housing thousands of other dogs, with an average of one overseer per hundred dogs?
Would you allow your dog to be locked up for years at a time for not obeying society’s standards when they’d never even growled at another dog or person?
Would you house a chihuahua who ran away from home with a Rottweiler who bit a child?
Imagine, if you will, what life in a kennel or a pound would be like if all the dogs were people, some better trained then others.
Think what it would be like for you as a prisoner. Would you like being treated like a dog? — Carla Bauer
The prisoners are very clear that the chance to live a decent life is often completely beyond them after their release, and prison has been no help in their making a later adjustment. In my mind – and in the minds of many of my students – marginalized members of our society now have two choices: prison or homelessness. Many actually choose the former, referring to being arrested as being “rescued.”
Suzanne Springer, a student who currently resides in the psychiatric unit at the jail once wrote, “Right now, I am trying to decide whether to take the DA’s offer of two years probation – to dare to be homeless again – or to do the time. It is one of the most powerful, important decisions I’ll ever make. I believe that I can’t make it in the world any more with my dementia and ADD. I’m scared to death and trying hard to cover it.”
I have many times asked the women to envision a “better” society but have never heard suggestions that extend beyond establishing more drug programs (admittedly a good idea) or ideas that take into account both personal and societal responsibility, that recognize the need to protect these women from themselves as much as from others.
One suggestion – or more a wish – does stick in my mind, however. I can’t remember what promoted it but I once commented to the women that when (not if) I won the lottery I would buy them a place to live on the outside.
“A fortress,” sighed Sara, an inmate in her mid-30s, wistfully.