Recently, after listening to Phoebe Judge’s podcast, Criminal, I decided to visit an inmate at a correctional facility five hours north. As a student studying political science with a passion for criminal justice reform, I believed this inmate’s case and experiences would be highly relevant to the direction and purpose of my advocacy efforts. To protect the privacy of the inmate, I will refer to him as Robert in place of his real name.
During the hour and a half that I spent talking with Robert, he was kind, honest, and open, and never seemed threatening or abnormal in the slightest. We sat in a tiny room, about the size of a supply closet, separated by a reinforced chain wall, similar to the cell Robert will spend the rest of his life in. He has been in solitary confinement for over 15 years. Robert has been in prison since he was 15 for two counts of murder. At the age of 21, he was released for 3 months, but was soon reincarcerated for attempted robbery. While serving 3-7 years, he committed a number of violations, including arson and stabbings, and accumulated a life imprisonment sentence.
As a child, Robert was constantly in and out of reformatories and institutions. According to Robert, nothing anyone did ever helped him, but rather taught him how to “calculate and analyze” his growing hatred. What could have helped Robert and shifted his trajectory? In his first month back in prison at 21, a highly respected friend of Robert’s told him he was “too impulsive.” Robert claimed these exact words changed how he faced his anger, and could have impacted him at a younger age. In a moment of clear, deep anguish, Robert said he wished a “young, intelligent woman” had taken him aside, looked into his eyes, and told him that they believed in him and would be there for him. He stressed this point, of needing a young woman to have been a mentor to him. He admits that many well-meaning mental-health professionals did their best to help him, but he didn’t trust them or their methods. He needed to hear that his life was valuable and capable of goodness.
In our country, people of color (POC) are frequently treated as worthless and less-than. In America, police have violently taken the lives of young, unarmed black Americans and received little to no punishment; young POC students in public and private education often lack the resources and opportunities to succeed in a system that values wealth and white skin; emergency services are called when a young, black woman is seen peaceably eating in her school’s cafeteria; incarcerated men, women, and children are forced to work in privately owned correctional facilities for little to no pay. It is no coincidence that African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of Whites. The millions of people, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, rotting away in prisons and detention facilities deserve to be loved, valued, and feel safe, just as all people deserve these basic rights.
Robert and I agreed that incarceration is a worthless, cruel form of suppression and doesn’t benefit inmates in any way. Inmates are not reformed, but rather released as “shells of real people.” They lack empathy, compassion, and trust, all necessary to cultivating safe, healthy communities. Robert excluded non-violent, drug possession-charges related inmates from his dire expectations. After spending so many years in prison, Robert believes our extremely high rate of incarceration reflects the gradual shedding of compassion, community, and empathy in our society. He is terrified of what our world is becoming. Robert believes that every 5 years, each individual sentenced to more than 5 years should be given the choice to proceed with another 5 years in prison, or be euthanized. If he were let out tomorrow, Robert stated his first act would be to request euthanization so that he may “finally rest in peace.” He does not believe he or his fellow inmates are able to be free citizens.
At 3G, we believe that reform is possible, but do not support prisons, nor the privatization of such. In 2016, we released A System of Justice, to bring awareness to wrongful incarcerations and honor the life of Glenn Ford, who spent 33 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. According to the NAACP, “in 2012 alone, the United States spent nearly $81 billion on corrections. Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre‐K‐12 public education in the last thirty years.”
-Benah Stiewing, intern