Is There A Way Where We Can Have A World Without Prisons?
Take a moment to think of a prison. Think of who is in that prison and think of their experience doing time in that prison. It might be a family member, a friend, or anyone that you know that has been sentenced. When thinking of prisons, people often think of the safety that they feel of having people that have done horrible things locked up and put away for a very long time. People feel at ease knowing that they are separated from those people and feel safer knowing that rapists, mass murderers, or any kind of violent individual is in a different place than them. But, what happens when they finish serving their sentence and are released out into our communities? Do we feel safer knowing that they were punished, or do we feel more scared to know that troubled individuals are living amongst us? Prisons are a way of punishing those who seemingly deserve it. They allow for the creation of a safer societal environment. However, they are also a place that may heighten the violent dispositions and other issues that individuals there struggle with. Prisoners often commit crimes because of mental health issues, drug and/or alcohol abuse, or ignorance. Thus, if they serve time and do not receive the help they need in that moment, will their problems suddenly clear up? Typically, the answer to this question is no. Imprisonment indeed has an effect on their well-being, but a negative effect is the reality for most inmates.
Kim Ambrose, a law professor at the University of Washington Seattle is helping to engage the community on issues of mass incarceration as well as fighting for a more equal criminal justice system. Passionate about creating a better future for our society, she has given this issue countless hours of thought, and this has resulted in her work with an organization called ‘Restorative Justice’.
Restorative Justice sees the issues from a unique angle. It involves looking at the individual committing the crime - who is referred to as a “victim” - and working to build up the “victim” as they are taught about the repercussions of their actions on community and country. These individuals come from a variety of backgrounds, and thus, giving them the same punishment of imprisonment may help some, and hurt others. Restorative Justice is working to help better the individual while still providing a penalty for what they have committed. Instead of putting them in solitary confinement, they engage in a “circle process” by approaching “conflict/harm as a way of engaging in ‘relationship building’”. Having this approach empowers and motivates “victims” to make goals and move forward in a positive way. The “victims” now get to go through their sentences with the help of a positive role model that will show them a side of life that they would have never thought possible.
Another organization is the Youth First Initiative located in Seattle. Those at this organization have realized that prisons “are not rehabilitation centers”. This is expounded upon in the following quote: “you don’t go to prison to be a better person - that is what you learn at home. Prisons aren’t set up to do that”. Prisons are for disciplining people that do horrible things, but, like Restorative Justice reiterated, there is a way in which we can improve upon this basic goal. The Youth First Initiative is a “system to undo the structure of inequalities and lack of opportunities”. Every day, kids as young as 13, 14 years old are getting locked up for 15-20 years and serving time for crimes committed in their ignorant youth. This issue goes hand in hand with poverty. Many of these kids come from low-income backgrounds and cannot afford the bail money. Thus, they are forced to pay for crimes with their very youth. There will be intersectional negative consequences on our global society if we continue to lock up kids that have not yet had a chance to learn positive behaviors. When these kids get discharged, their return to society is difficult because they have missed out on the opportunity to obtain a circle of friends or positive mentors in their youth - they have lost their childhood. Youth First Initiative acknowledges that putting kids away in prisons is not the right way to handle associated criminal situations. Each day, they are fighting for kids all around the state and country to get the help that they need.
I asked Professor Kim Ambrose (University of Washington) what the next steps are in making positive change to our criminal justice system. She said that we need to “start locally and find out who is in [our] jail. Tour the facilities and find out why the people who are in jail are in jail. Get educated. Jails are filled with mostly poor people and people of color. Strive to get more information and find out who is in charge of this system in your community. Almost 80% of our county budget go to prisons, so, find out where our tax dollars are going. Talk to the community and show people that it isn’t cost effective. Most importantly, look at this issue from a financial standpoint when you are speaking because it sparks the questions of what you are paying for.”
After endless amounts of research as well as my interview with Kim, all in all, I do believe that we can function in a society without prisons. If we continue to look at this issue from an intersectional standpoint, we can begin to fix the roots from which this unjust system began. Facilities and organizations that help create hope and positivity in the lives of those affected actually help by empowering people to effect constructive change in their own lives, as well as their society. The easy route is to lock all the “bad individuals” up. However, a more effective way is to fix the problem entirely by providing safe spaces to talk and create change, one person at a time.