Our national conversations have most recently been filled with talks of our police forces and the things that must change within them. However, we cannot talk about a singular part of our justice system without acknowledging the others that uphold it, one being our current means of incarceration.
Similar to how we expect police officers to handle a vast number of problems we face as a society, we expect prisons to act as all of their solutions.
But in all the years we have continuously relied on prisons, to paraphrase Dr. Angela Davis, they have yet to disappear problems, they have only disappeared people.
Despite knowing this, the cycle rages on, and new prisons continue to be built in the United States: from 1970 to 2000, we went from having 511 prisons to 1,663 on our soil. This very same pattern can be seen continuing in our own backyard with King County’s newly constructed youth jail, known as the “Children and Family Justice Center”, which cost a total of 210 million dollars.
The building of more and more centers just like these are only functioning to harm our community, and this new addition will likely work to carry on that dangerous trend. For the problem was never that kids were not going to school- the concern that led to the construction of the youth jail.
The problem was and continues to be a lack of basic needs being met, as is the cause of nearly all crime. This could take the form of a lack of food, or housing, or money. A lack of love or good parenting. Kids not going to school was the symptom of an issue, not the problem itself, that runs deep within our roots. We must dig deep to solve it, and soon, lest the ground rot and crumble beneath our feet.
When we are not all given the chance to do good, and be good, we cannot expect the same results from all of our people.
How do we know this? Well, we can simply look at how often people end up back in jail, or what’s known as the recidivism rate. In fact, one in four people will return to prison after getting out, and it is not hard to find out why. The more times a person is re-arrested, the higher the likelihood that they are someone who has yet to receive a high school diploma, are currently unemployed, or make less than $10,000 a year, as Prison Policy’s data shows.
Those born into low-income neighborhoods with little access to quality education are already at a disadvantage when their life begins, and that only grows as they get older and are often pushed into unsafe situations of survival. Punishing them for that fact instead of trying to get them on solid ground and tackle these issues at the core, issues such as drug addiction or homelessness, is where I believe we are failing.
The answer for these types of troubles isn’t imprisonment, we know this does not work. The answer is treating those experiencing these things with kindness, aid, and respect. We cannot continue to place our belief in a system that does not provide those necessary factors when it has shown us time and time again that it is not worthy of holding it.
This vicious cycle is one that desperately needs to be stopped. We must ensure that a day comes where those previously incarcerated for non-violent offenses can return back to a life that is their own. That they are armed with tools to help them navigate life, and are not forced to return to crime or violence once again due to a lack of resources and care. We can get nowhere until we give them that. Until we can confidently say that we have created something that rehabilitates, reteaches, and allows room for growth, not just suffering.
We do not yet have all the answers on how to solve these issues, but I believe questioning what actually keeps us safe is a good place for us to start. We are safe when our basic needs are met, when we are not forced into desperation, and when we prioritize liberation over profit.
There may always be people who do bad things for no other reason than to do them, and I do not sit in naivety and ignore that. But pushing people out of sight pushes them out of our minds, and that is not us building safety for everyone. That is us building safety for the lucky ones.
Truthfully, we are safe when we build our communities around caring for each other, not hiding from the people we are unsure how to empathize with.
There was a time when the way we live now seemed radical. I believe that a day will come where the thought of having ever kept nearly 2.1 million Americans behind bars, as the World Prison Brief shows, will seem radical too.
But first we must find our way out of this collective mindset of punishment. I’ll admit that this way of thinking used to be my own as well. But as I grow, and listen to those older than me, and different than me, life continues to crack me wide open and change my mind. All bad things are not created equal, and so one method of response cannot be either.
There is not one solution, because there is no part of this problem that stands alone. The education system, and mental health, and systemic racism, and poverty, and the prison industrial complex are intrinsically linked in more ways than one. And while I know that we want to feel as though people who harm our communities are hurting with us, or that their pain in some way lessens our own, this isn’t true nor has it ever been.
Pain does not require pain in return, and neither does mercy.
We owe each other that belief, and we certainly deserve at least that much.