What Replaces Prisons?
August 5, 2020
Yesterday I read a review of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair by Danielle Sered, New Press, 305 pp., $26.99. The author of the review is Michelle Kuo, who is an attorney and a professor of History, Law, and Society at the University of Paris. The focus of the book is on the brutality of prison life and exploring possibilities that could replace prisons as we know and experience them today in the U.S. Ms. Kuo writes:
And prison itself is a horror: a chaotic and degrading environment where the threat of violence is constant. Overextended and corrupt guards allow assaults, or assault inmates themselves. In Alabama, inmate mortality has more than doubled since 2010. Since 2014, Texas and Florida, which respectively have the highest and third-highest prison populations in the US, have seen record inmate mortality rates. Investigative reports depict inadequate or nonexistent mental health care, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. During the first month of the coronavirus pandemic, Rikers Island had one toilet for every twenty-nine people. In Mississippi, where sixteen inmates died in a single month in 2018, prisoners live in “squalid conditions with standing sewage in freezing temperatures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The practice of solitary confinement—sometimes for infractions as minor as speaking disrespectfully to a guard—is linked to nearly half of prison suicides. In Texas, the average time prisoners spend in solitary is four years.
Most people who have studied prisons usually agree that the threat of harsh punishment or lengthy sentences is not a deterrent to crime. The book by Ms. Sered explores at length the possibilities for instituting restorative justice practices and mediation in place of long and brutal prison sentences. . I plan to buy the book. For we as a society desperately need to come up with workable alternatives to punishment that will have the potential to provide justice to the victims as well as restore the lives of the perpetrators and the communities they live in. Here is another paragraph from the review that highlights a restorative justice program here in Washington, DC.
In the US, mediation between victims and juvenile offenders is not new. Like many “diversionary” programs, as they’re known, for juvenile crime, it has been used primarily in rich communities with the funding and political will to keep their teenagers out of jail. In the past ten years, though, community organizations in St. Paul, Baltimore, Fresno, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as more longstanding programs in Colorado and Vermont, have worked with city and state officials to offer restorative justice alternatives to young people in detention. In 2016 in Washington, D.C., the attorney general Karl Racine was the first in the country to hire a small team of in-house restorative justice specialists to offer prison alternatives in juvenile cases involving assault, robbery, and other violent crimes. More generally, state legislatures have begun to embrace restorative justice as a way to stop the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, on the rationale that students learn more from dialogue and solution-making than they do from punishment.
Restorative justice for crimes committed by adults, however, remains a fringe idea in the US. A program created by a Boston federal judge in 2015, documented by the attorney and scholar Lara Bazelon, was designed for indigent adults charged with offenses arising from drug addiction, such as drug trafficking or assault.2 Sentencing hearings are postponed for twelve months, and sentences may be reduced or cleared if offenders meet with people who have lost loved ones to addiction. There are also a number of restorative justice initiatives in the prison system itself, such as the Insight Prison Project at San Quentin in California, a yearlong program designed to “help offenders fully understand and take responsibility for the impact of their actions.” (It is not explicitly tied to sentencing, though participation might be a factor in parole decisions.)
Violent crime is a fraught issue: Republicans seize on it as a justification for harsh sentences, while centrist politicians (and those further to the left) often avoid discussing it. Most Democrats argue for clemency only in the case of nonviolent crimes, as Barack Obama did when he was president. Indeed, as the legal scholar John Pfaff points out, many states have ensured political support for relaxed punishment of crimes such as drug possession by lengthening sentences for crimes like assault and murder. (It is a common misconception that mass incarceration in the US could be ended solely by revising drug laws: in fact, drug convictions account for only 15 percent of the people in state prisons, while convictions for violent offenses account for 53 percent. If we released all the nonviolent drug offenders in the country, as the legal scholar James Forman Jr. has noted, we would still have the highest incarceration rate in the world.) Meanwhile, few solutions are ever considered for how to give those who commit violent crimes a real chance at reintegrating themselves into society and leading productive lives.