By Eve Tawfick
What: NLG against Mass Incarceration
When: February 26 – March 3 Feb 26 at 12 AM to Mar 3 at 12 PM
Where:National Lawyers Guild Lewis and Clark Chapter
10015 SW Terwilliger Blvd, Portland, Oregon 97219
Did you know that the United States of America is home 25% of the world’s prison population? That’s 764 out of every 100,000 people behind bars. Considering that the US is home to only 4.4% of the world’s population, it’s level of prisoners is highly indicative of the disquieting state of the justice system. It is said that out of that 22%, by 2015 56% of incarcerated people in the USA were African American or Hispanic. African American females were twice as likely to be arrested as white females, and 2.3 million of the 6.4 million strong prison population are African American. (Find out more at http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/)
Apart from the blatant racial factors pertaining to America’s prison population, the number has sharply increased since 1981, the overall number of inmates climbing from 500,000 to 6.4million at present. Crime itself is on the decline, however number of arrests and imprisonments is on the rise. Individuals are being arrested and ‘held’ in prisons until trial, or until they plead guilty. The tragic case of Kalief Browder , a 22 year old African American man who was arrested and charged for an offence he did not commit, was detained for two years before his release and pardon. The experience left a psychological scar on Browder, and he went on to commit suicide in June 2015. Browder spoke of the injustice of his experience publicly.
Behind the grey walls of correctional facilities holds the empty promise of ‘rehabilitation’, those who earn their living by dealing in the black economy of drugs, prostitution and theft are somewhat victims of their social circumstance, they are in need of therapy and education, some would argue. Instead, they face humiliation, degradation and exploitation. Business giants such as Nintendo, Microsoft and Victoria’s Secret have all been linked to prison labour, although each company has so far, refrained from comment. There is a ‘pro-prison workforce’ argument, whereby inmates are said to benefit from ‘work experience’ which will better facilitate them when they are released into society. However, these programs are little more than sweatshops, using the dire circumstance of the petty criminal to save on labour costs. Inmates have been said to work for as little as one dollar per hour producing high end goods for consumers. Maybe this was Victoria’s Secret all along?
Kamilla London, aged 19 when she was incarcerated, has shared her account of being a black, transgender woman in state prison(read Kamilla’s story here: https://www.nlg.org/guild-notes/article/beyond-bars-life-at-vaughn-prison-as-a-black-transwoman/). She claims that prison ‘Should rehabilitate not victimise’ and said she lived with officers who were ‘violent, abusive, predators’ who should ‘have no business being employed in public service’. London acknowledges that the state has the right to protect the public from criminals, however there is little use in releasing said criminals into public once they have served if they are ‘unreformed and abused.’ This is a valid point, if the initial problem that led to the crime is not resolved, then how can this guarantee that the individual will not re-offend? The very words ‘correctional facility’ are rendered meaningless in wake of the cold, hard reality of prison life. Far from suggesting criminals should be cuddled up with cookies and blankies, it might be beneficial to provide relevant therapy and schooling instead of abuse. If correctional officers are violent toward inmates this only reinforces an ‘us against them’ mentality, which causes inmates to lose faith in the very system that they are meant to blend into upon their discharge.
From February 26th to March 3rd 2018, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) will hold a campaign called ‘Week against Mass Incarceration’. As of 2016, the movement changed from ‘Week against the death penalty, as the issues surrounding the mass incarceration were deemed more relevant in the current political and social climate. Their hashtag #ENDPRISONS may be a little extreme, but it invites us to consider the word criminal. There is a stigma attached to the word, that there something unclean and morally undone in it’s meaning. It is a state imposed word, that allows us to detach from the human beings which it tarnishes. Of course, a murderer is a criminal, a rapist is a criminal. Yet when we think about petty crime, people stealing to survive, people being labelled as criminals when they are innocent, as in the case of Bower, do they deserve the full weight of their branding? In this case the justice system is the thief. To call an innocent man a criminal is to steal his rights, his autonomy and his time, because of the colour of his skin, or his background.
Mass incarceration isn’t solving any problems, but it appears to be creating many.
Find out more here.