The Washington Post Magazine

We’ve Normalized Prison

The carceral state and its threat to democracy
(Thomas Bartlett Whitaker)

When I was 22, in the early 1990s, I committed a crime. More than a decade later, I was sent to federal prison for 13 months for that crime — a first-time drug offense. In 2010, I published a book about my experience, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” The title is not only a sarcastic joke about orange jumpsuits, but also a reference to the fact that the population of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people in the United States has exploded: We lock up more of our own people than any other nation in history, and beyond the 2.3 million people confined on any given day, more than 73 million American adults have some sort of criminal record.

The reach of the American criminal punishment systems stretches to clutch far more people than many imagine. I know this not only from being incarcerated, but also from teaching nonfiction writing classes in state prisons. My students’ stories bravely reveal difficult personal truths and bring to light much wider realities in a way that only lived experience really can. What incarcerated writers’ voices illustrate is that the American criminal justice system does not solve the problems — violence, mental illness, addiction — that it claims to address.

If prison curbed drug addiction or the ills that surround it, we would not be in the grip of an overdose crisis, having locked up unprecedented millions of people for drugs for more than four decades. If the threat of criminal punishment were effective against violence, then we would not see persistent and unequal rates of harm concentrated in some communities, or against women, or LGBTQ people. If we considered our failure to help children who witness or are targeted by violence alongside our unique willingness to sentence children to die in prison, perhaps more people would see our criminal punishment system for the vicious ouroboros that it is.

Indeed, far from solving our problems, the carceral state is causing a massive one: A nation that locks up so many people and creates an expansive apparatus that relies on violence and confinement is a nation in which democracy, over the long term, cannot thrive. For centuries, the U.S. political economy has relied on millions being sidelined from democratic participation, most notably African Americans and, before 1920, women. Violence, in the form of lynching, was always important to limit democracy in this country (and agents of law enforcement were often complicit). As we near 2020, civic exclusion is still a critical tool for those invested in preserving an inequitable status quo, and the policies surrounding mass incarceration are invaluable for continuing to deny participation to millions of Americans.

Last year, the citizens of Florida voted to amend the state constitution to allow people like me, with felony convictions, to regain the right to vote after returning home. Quickly and shamelessly, the Florida legislature and governor responded by passing a poll tax to prevent those voters — disproportionately people of color and poor people — from having a voice. Many other states also restrict voting rights of prisoners or ex-prisoners, especially states with large African American populations — not a coincidence, as they remain overly targeted and punished by the criminal justice system. As a result, we have not only normalized prison but normalized the exclusion of large groups of people from participating in our democracy.

It’s important to remember that law is made and administered by those in power — and the less democratic we are, the less just the legal system will be. That’s why police officers or Stanford athletes who rape get sentences of six months or probation, while some of my students have served two decades for similar crimes and are still in prison. Prisons and jails do not serve feminist goals — few institutions are more hierarchical, more dominance-oriented, more patriarchal, and totally reliant on the threat and promise of violence. Being subject to violence does not make you less likely to enact it. We are at a moment in time when state violence — whether it’s violence perpetrated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents against children and families, police violence documented on smartphones, or a woman paralyzed in a beating by prison workers — is coming into sharper relief for all Americans, even those who have not been targets of the state. If you’re outraged by what you see the government doing with federal courts and detention facilities, look closely at what your local sheriff, prosecutors and judges are doing, too.

A nation that locks up so many people is a nation in which democracy, over the long term, cannot thrive.

Recent news stories about young children and families who are separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and held in desperate conditions in private prisons and public jails nationwide bewilder and disgust many Americans. But, in fact, the U.S. government has been separating families and punishing children throughout history, most notably African American and Native American families and children. Native American girls have the highest incarceration rate in our juvenile prisons, and that’s not because they are perpetrating a crime wave. The most marginalized girls in the United States are often jailed for truancy, for homelessness due to abuse, for things that are not actually crimes, because as a community we have no substantive response to their lack of safety, other than a cage. Better approaches are well-understood but don’t have political currency because the people who need them are considered expendable or even threatening by those in power.

At this watershed moment, it’s critical for each of us to pause and ask: Why is all this happening? Am I okay with it? Whom am I listening to? What should I do? If the only people we listen to on questions of law and public safety are the people who hold the power to make or impose laws, ask yourself why, and whether they are actually trustworthy. We have to be especially wary of granting authority figures — many of whom have a deep stake in maintaining the status quo — exclusive control over what should count as “normal.”

Freedom and safety are too often imagined as being in opposition, but nothing could be further from the truth. Americans who have the most freedom — freedom to learn, freedom from illness, freedom of movement, freedom from violence — are invariably the safest, and the whitest, and the richest. We did this to ourselves: Mass incarceration is a result of policies that have grown out of a history of slavery, colonialism and punishment of the poor. Until we reconcile with these hard truths, by listening to the people most affected by the loss of freedom, we will fall far short of equity. We have a choice: We can permit injustice to remain a growth industry or we can elect to have a more fair, restorative and effective system. And this isn’t an abstract choice — it is one you will make today, and tomorrow, and next week. Ending mass incarceration is imperative for democracy, safety and freedom. Do you see what is happening in your own community? And are you ready to do your part?

Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” She served 13 months in federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Illustrator Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, whose death sentence was commuted minutes before his scheduled execution, founded Minutes Before Six, a nonprofit writing and arts project for prisoners. He is serving life without parole at William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Tex., for murder.

Design by Emma Kumer.

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