It’s easy to talk about words – words read, words spoken – but what about experience? And beyond merely describing that experience, how do we draw meaning from it?
The image of the prison yard at the Salinas Valley State Prison is emblazoned in my mind, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. The image that sticks with me is the general programming yard, where we waited for many minutes so we could see the inmates come out of their cells after lunch and so we could witness the gang activity. Gangs dictate where people walk, how they stand, who they associate with. I was completely astonished that we could see it, out in the open. I would have thought that the gangs would be hidden from view, secret. But no, they are out in the open. And there is nothing the prison guards can do about it.
This is the first time I’m writing about this since we saw it. The sun was very bright, although we actually felt a bit cold due to the wind. The yard is vast. At one point we saw an inmate being brought out from a cell block in handcuffs and all the prisoners had to sit on the ground. They used to have to lie face down on the ground, but a lawsuit has changed that. A lawsuit also closed the security housing unit (SHU or “shoe”) at Pelican Bay, which once housed the notorious gang leaders, on the grounds that it caused too much harm to inmates’ mental health.
That was one thing that we learned: how the success of lawsuits in the legal system has, over time, changed how prisons operate. “Cruel and unusual punishment” is a fine line here. Keeping inmates in line… is the name of the game. Our tour guide said it’s not about control for the sake of control; it’s about getting through the day efficiently, getting the job done, the inmates fed, and in and out of their cells, no mess, not trouble, simple. But human beings are not simple. They have a way of making things complicated. Why? Well, the prison system alone would make life pretty meaningless. In and out of your cell, into the vast yard, obedience, keeping your head down, how could you stand it? Especially if you grew up knowing that academic and economic success through mainstream pathways was not an open avenue for you, and that you had to find some other way to have power, and a voice, and an identity?
And so the inmates try to assert themselves, and the prison guards reassert control.
The visit made me grapple with some unpleasant questions.
First, a banal question: what about sunscreen? Do the light-skinned inmates have access to sunscreen, or do they suffer sunburn in the yard, where there is no shade? Do they care? Do they get skin cancer? I don’t have the answer to this question, as I did not ask it. I was afraid to ask it, because I was afraid of exposing my naivete. Oh well, I’m exposing it now.
But more disturbingly, I found myself wondering why all the guards and care around keeping the prisoners safe, preventing suicide, preventing homicide, providing medical care, providing mental health care and medications, providing multiple yards for inmates to program in so they will be safe, this very elaborate system to keep inmates alive and well during their punishment? With Julie Reynolds Martinez, we had learned the day before that the official purposes of imprisonment are these: to protect society from individuals who commit crimes, to deter people from committing crimes out of fear of imprisonment, to punish people who commit crimes, and (more recently) to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for reentry into society. The reason why I felt disturbed as I asked myself the above question is because it seems to imply that I don’t care about the inmates’ well-being; yet I do. I guess I was just surprised to hear the prison guards’ view that without all the careful structure, inmates would tear each other to pieces. I’m sure after seeing enough attacks and attempted homicides in the yard, you would eventually come to that conclusion.
But it does seem like prisons exist in a nebulous floating zone between punishment and rehabilitation. They cannot overtly punish, or they would be hit with a lawsuit, yet they fail to successfully rehabilitate either. I do think that being in prison is enough punishment for someone who has committed a serious crime, but I mostly believe that punishment is unnecessary, that if the entire purpose and focus of incarceration was rehabilitation, we would have a much better society and reduce the recidivism rate. People commit crimes for a reason, I believe, and it’s not because they are inherently bad. It feels as though the ambiguous purpose of imprisonment is related to this fundamental confusion in our society: do people commit crimes because they are bad, or because their circumstances are bad? I have to admit, if someone in the best of circumstances – supportive family, good education, wealth – commits a crime, I have little sympathy. But this is not the case for a lot of the people in prison, it seems.
Our tour guide made a very important point, though, which was that if you are looking to reform the system, and you are looking at prisons to do that, you are looking at the end of the line, where it is in some ways too late. What he meant is that if we want to reduce crime, we need to start in communities, working with families and youth, changing the underlying social, psychological and economic reasons that cause people to turn to crime, whether it be joining gangs, selling drugs, and inflicting verbal, physical, and sexual abuse on others, most devastatingly children. We need to dismantle our systems of privilege for some/marginalization for many. We need to provide educational opportunities for everyone and help to people who need it. We need to reform our justice system – a process that is already happening in California and elsewhere – so that everyone who possibly can gets funneled into a rehabilitative system, instead of prison; so that drug crimes aren’t treated like homicide; so that children aren’t tried as adults; so that laws that unfairly target black and brown people are struck down. We need to create a political climate where politicians can be “smart on crime,” not “tough on crime,” and can get elected by advertising the good they will do, rather than attacking their fellow candidates. We need to work with our police to reduce bias and develop trusting relationships with communities.
Don’t look to the prisons to transform society.
At the same time, it is never too late. Personally, I feel more drawn to understand and engage with those who have hit rock bottom. I have for many years been interested in the prison system and its wards, so I may well prefer to engage with people at the tail end of the justice system, instead of youth in the schools. It’s my personal psychology that makes me this way, I think.