Hola mi Gente,
Yesterday, I spent the whole day in lobbying in Albany to essentially do away with the practice of torture often called solitary confinement. One of the consequences of politicians such as Hillary Clinton, who championed get tough on crime policies that have decimated Black and Latinx communities, is the increased practice of caging human beings in a cell not much bigger than a small closet, for 23 hours a day every day — often for years.
I spent less than a month in an isolation unit and by the second week, I was prowling the small cell and talking to myself. One guard, who had something against me, hinted that he had pissed and put shit in my food, so I wasn’t eating. By the third week, I was having difficulty separating what was in my head from reality. The screams I heard throughout the day and night, screams from people with mental health needs, were horrifying and disorienting. Then there were the screams of people who were being beaten by the guards.
The UN considers anything more than 15 days of isolated confinement as cruel and unusual punishment. But in the United States, because we’re seen as animals — super-predators — we’re subjected to abuse that would make most people angry if the abuse were directed at a dog, let alone a human being.
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Shame and Violence
Retribution as justice is the disease of a society gone mad with vengeance.
Some of you know that I work in the area of criminal justice. More specifically, for ten years, I helped create and eventually became the director of a (now defunct) community-based re-entry project called Developing Justice that offered support to the many men and women returning to their communities after incarceration. More recently, I have worked for an organization, The Correctional Association, where I was able to utilize a human rights perspective as a way to advocate for policies that decreased our dependence on incarceration and create more human conditions in prisons.
One of the things I like most about the work that I do is being a part of network of formerly incarcerated men and women who are at the vanguard of the push for criminal justice reform. As my friend, Glenn Martin, of JustLeadership, likes to say, those who are closest to the problem are often closest to the solutions.
One of my areas of interest is challenging what many of us are calling the punishment paradigm — the notion that punishment, without regard to rehabilitation is an effective means of social justice. Of course, it isn’t. In fact, there’s an empirically strong case for hyper-incarceration as a factor in increases in violence and violent crime. I tend to agree with this, generally speaking. I actually see it all the time. I will also submit that there is very little difference in the lived of experiences of people in prison and the people who live in communities that are the pipeline to those prisons — for the most part communities of color. In fact, Black and Latinx communities often resemble open air prisons.
Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has worked in prisons for 35 years, describes an interesting experience that I think is connected to all this. He was called in to resolve a vicious cycle with a prisoner in which he would assault corrections officers and they would in turn physically abuse him. The more they abused him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they abused him. Nothing they did (at least legally) would stop this man from assaulting the officers.
When Gilligan went to see this man he asked him what he thought was an obvious question, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” His answer astonished the doctor. Usually inarticulate to the point that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, he stood up, and with perfect clarity he stated authoritatively: “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” And then he added, “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their abuse.
According to Gilligan, this wasn’t uncommon. In fact, several hundred violent criminals in this country provoke their own deaths at the hands of the police in exactly that way every year. Indeed, this phenomenon is so common that police forces (and this is not counting the clear cases of police misconduct) around the country have given it a nickname: “suicide by cop.” In World War II, Japan’s kamikaze pilots behaved in a way that had much the same result, as do contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Articulating a powerful insight, Gilligan adds, “In the prisons and on the streets of the United States, such behavior appears to be committed by people who are so tormented by feelings of being shamed and disrespected by their enemies that they are willing to sacrifice their bodies and their physical existence to replace those intolerable feelings with the opposite feelings of pride and self-respect, and of being honored and admired by their allies and at least respected by their enemies. Such people experience the fear that they provoke in their victims as a kind of ersatz form of respect, the only type they are capable of achieving.”
I certainly agree with Gilligan except that I see his use of the label “enemies” as a product of his white privilege. What he calls enemies are, in fact, the very social institutions that are meant to protect and serve us.
Here’s the travesty: as a society we recreate environments, at an enormous social and economic expense, that exacerbate these feelings of impotent rage. Our prisons and communities are filled with people who have become part of a long-standing human experiment in how to destroy a whole group of people through racialized social control. In other words, we address social issues such as addiction, lack of access to quality education, poverty, structural racism, and domestic violence, for example, by punishing — incarcerating — the people most impacted by inequality. The icing on the cake is that we do this at an enormous economic expense and that money gets taken out of, yes, you guessed it, “luxuries” such as education, drug treatment, economic investment in marginalized communities, and so on.
There has to be a better way. In fact, there are better ways. Gilligan has run an extremely successful prison restorative justice program utilizing his insights, for example. I believe that at least half (and maybe more) of the mostly Black and Latinx people in cages right now, don’t belong there. It is common knowledge that education and supportive services such as drug treatment, workforce development, educational opportunities — in essence a Marshall Plan for our own devastated communities — cost a fraction of the billions prisons cost us today and are much more effective at reducing violence and crime.
Not too long ago, while reviewing some literature, a colleague sent me the following snippet:
In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed at the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and everyone in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, recalling the good things the person has done in his life. Every experience that can be recalled with detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully. This ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.”
I believe we need what my departed friend, Eddie Ellis, called human justice. Essentially, Eddie offered “an instructive vision for what ‘justice’ looks like in the context of the needs, aspirations and well-being of ordinary people.”
Wow, justice for the 99% what a fuckin’ crazy idea, huh?
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…