The American incarceration system is one of the worst in the world – that is a widely known fact. I have had some years of experience studying and working with incarcerated populations here, and at every step I have been truly shocked. One of the great things about our program is the diversity in nationalities and cross-cultural experiences of its participants. Certainly prison systems in many of the countries we are from are or seem far more horrific, but when one country – and the United States at that – is responsible for twenty five percent of the world’s incarcerated people, that is something that needs to be addressed.
The demographics of incarcerated populations are unsurprising given the long history of systematic violence in this country. Our talk with Julie Reynolds about the prison system and our visit to the Salinas Valley State Prison was incredibly informative about the structures that continue to oppress so many different groups. I have worked in a Connecticut women’s prison before, and using that as my frame of reference for this visit – to a high-security men’s prison on the other side of the country – was interesting. I was expecting this prison to be a volatile, tense and scary place where the wardens abused their power and prisoners lived every moment in fear. It certainly was a tense environment, but the issue of gangs and gang violence complicated the experience. Julie left us with this question: Do the prisons design the gangs or do gangs design the prison?
I was surprised at how respectful and friendly all the guards we met were. I was not at all expecting that. At the risk of generalizing, it also seemed that they had seceded their “power” or “authority” to the gang leaders in exchange for peace and harmony within the prison walls. “We don’t segregate them; they segregate themselves,” is something we heard often from many of the sergeants. Prisons by design are meant to be a symbol of power, yet here the center of power seemed so shaky. During our debrief, I mentioned that we as a group had not been searched or even asked to pass through a metal detector, which seemed very strange to me given the hype around its level of security and the ease with which our visit could have led to complications. The architecture of this entire system showed me really what a stronghold this area is for the gangs.
Interestingly, I immediately thought back to our discussions on terrorism and the continuous emergence of terrorist cells in other parts of the world. Why can’t the giant American military destroy a couple thousand ISIS fighters? Well, why can’t the American prison system successfully stop a handful of criminal gang members and their illicit activities? Clearly and overwhelmingly, the system is failing. I am aware that it is easy to point fingers at the “system” – whatever this “system” entails – but without a deep, critical analysis of this system we simply cannot address the question of changing it. And while we engage in intellectual critique, we must simultaneously find a way to maintain and instill peace that manifests immediately and materially for the populations torn apart by this violence – from guns or knives or bombs or missiles. I am not sure that the prison system does much to live up to this role.