Grassroots Technologies

By: Óscar Cejudo Corbalán

I have already mentioned in a previous blog the four megatrends that Richard Matthew says are shaping the world. Among them, technology has been a recurrent topic in a couple of sessions these last two days.

This tool has the potential to be a strong divider in society – especially in conflicted areas. We see examples of this constantly: from the most obvious ones such as the free and instant access to media that is conducive to hatred or military devices, to some other much subtler ones. But at the end, as Madhawa Palihapitiya said, technology is only a tool, and judging it as a positive or negative one will depend on who and how to use them. In good hands and with good will, technology can (and will) be an ally for peacebuilders that will help us establishing the well needed relationships that can transform society.

Therefore, in making technologies a connector rather than a divider, it is important to think about the users. And this is where I think both Joseph Bock and Madhawa Palihapitiya coincided in their discourses, since they shared the vision of technologies as a tool to share at the local-local grassroots level. It is both efficient and empowering. A simple gesture that can help prevent or mitigate many conflicts, since the local population already know their needs and goals.

But at the same time I agree we should consider the users, we have to question who the producers are. And what is my first thought on factors to consider or to be wary about? Neutrality. There is nothing neutral in this life (everything is political, gendered, and so on) so what does this mean for technologies? Specially if we are speaking about technologies for peacebuilding.

The first and most intuitive factor that breaks the neutrality (for me) is gender. If we understand technology as if it were knowledge, we can all agree that the engineering and coding world is vastly male dominated. What are the implications for this? Are we being as efficient as we could be in producing these tools? (Considering efficiency in this case as a matter of engaging diverse experiences in the production process to create more sensitive technologies that can support a broader set of beneficiaries.)

Beyond this, it is a very profitable market which makes me wonder what the outcomes of this production/dissemination of technologies in such an unequal world are. If they are designed and created in countries with a certain access to production means whose reality differs from those who are going to serve, are we perpetuating some sort of inequity? Is it another form of creating dependency? Some sort of technology humanitarism that provide services that do not transform structures? Or will it be also provided the means and knowledge necessary to replicate the needed technologies in the place where they are used?

One of the reasons why I decided to shift my career from Architecture to the Social Justice field was precisely to run from being in front of a computer and getting closer to human beings. I am not a fan of technologies. However, these sessions have stimulated my thoughts on the positive (inevitable and necessary) connection between peacebuilding and technology, and some questions to reflect on. I am excited to keep exploring this connection and its possibilities.

Not in my lifetime

By: Óscar Cejudo Corbalán

The idea of decolonizing opens so many new thoughts (and headaches.) Since I have been exposed to the theoretical field of social justice I have been learning about and from many concepts. It is interesting to see how a new term (for me) can easily supersede the old one. Diversity (the representation, the numbers, the “tangible”) is not enough without inclusion (the interactions, the behaviors and attitudes, the “rules” that allow an equitable relationship to take place in a diverse setting.) Now it seems that inclusion is not enough if it is not achieve through decolonization.

It now feels that inclusion is a way to allow people outside the center (the unprivileged, the oppressed, the marginalized) to interact with the rules imposed by this center – to include them in that center. I know it is not the case, and that the idea of inclusiveness includes challenging the power dynamics. But the question is: can we be inclusive enough if we do not engage in decolonizing our minds and structures?

This decolonization can be explained using Galtung’s model of center-periphery. If we can expand the center to include more types of thoughts we will be disrupting the established systems of knowledge. And it was important for me to rethink that expanding the center does not mean perpetuating the same structures with more identity or status groups enjoying the privileges of being in this center. It does not mean either to revert the structures, interchanging social status and putting in the center those who used to be in the periphery and leaving in the side the ones who used to be the privileged. It means a completely rethinking of what we understand by knowledge (who, how and why is produced, disseminated and received.)  Once my first misconception of this idea was overcome, the question is how?

I see the theory and practice quite clear in some cases. I can highlight two from this week: ghosts and peace education. Early in the week, Kathryn Poethig came to talk about the importance of taking into consideration the dead people in the process of trauma healing and reconciliation. I was completely astonished about this idea and my complete ignorance on the topic (as with many other topics.) It will clearly depend on the needs of the local people in the post-conflict environment, but once the idea was presented to me, how can I deny the relevance of this issues in conflict resolution or even transformation? The field is so centered on the livings (the material realm) that these types of knowledge and approaches are left out.

More recently, Qamar Houda brought another decolonizing approach (unless that is how I see it) when talking about Peace Education and peace curriculums. Specifically talking about history curriculums and textbooks which are usually coming from a very biased (and intentional) perspective, Houda maintains that the only way to break this faulty and incomplete history is by including many other voices.

I understand that in an ideally decolonized world, dialogues with ghosts and curriculums that include many perspectives in (let’s say) the common history of a region/state, are at the same level as any other knowledge or understanding of the world. However, I am facing a wall in my colonized mind (one of many in this decolonizing headache process.) Can we accept knowledge from every single source? Can we draw a line? How can everything be accepted? No, how can anything be rejected? And why? (Argh!)

Even deeper than that (and thicker, if I continue talking about this as if they were walls in my colonized mind), is there an escape from this concept? It seems to be an irrefutable truth because it explains itself and it defends itself, perfectly protected (interestingly enough, even better self-protected than the structures of privilege that it wants to eliminate.) By questioning the process of decolonizing we are reaffirming the colonized mind we have, and the need to decolonize it. Once you have started to think about it there is no way out! (ARGH!)

As many things in the field it is a process and a constant learning. We can only plant the seeds of the decolonization and hope that someone will eventually collect the fruits. As everything in the field it starts in oneself but without being oneself the ultimate goal or protagonist. However, and this is the ultimate difference with many other aspects in the field: Decolonizing my mind sometimes seems way harder than decolonizing the superior structures.

I am convinced that I have to decolonize my mind, I completely embrace the idea (as I said, there is no way to escape it anyways), but I have the feeling that it is not going to happen in my lifetime.

Deconstructing dichotomies

By: Óscar Cejudo Corbalán

Security and peace, social structures and individuals, spaces for reconciliation and spaces for justice, complexity and simplicity, peacebuilding and building peace, offender and victims. During these past two weeks I have been thinking over and over about these terms that seem to me to somehow oppose each other. Oppose is not the most accurate word; maybe contradict? Or clash with each other? I know some of them seem obvious and some of them do not seem to clash at all (reason why I was surprised when I started seeing them as contradictory to each other), but after much thought and many sessions with different speakers I now see how these coupled terms complement each other.

Maybe the easiest one to see is how security and peace are interconnected, but it is interesting that the connection does not go both ways. When we were going over sessions related to gang violence, law enforcement or criminal justice system it struck me how security (being as fundamental as it is) does not mean peace at all. All the speakers and people we talk with related to these issues emphasized the need for security and sometimes (many times) this means to use force or violence to achieve it (whether if it is direct violence as it could be in the case of law enforcement, or structural violence as it could be in certain aspects of the criminal justice system.) Therefore, it seemed to me that in our society today (at least when we are dealing with violent conflicts), guaranteeing security compromise the goal of achieving peace (positive and negative peace in Galtung’s terms). However, there is a necessary unidirectional link between both concepts, since there will be no peace if we cannot provide security (it is one of Burton’s basic human needs.)

The reciprocity goes both ways when we are talking about social structures and individuals. We were privileged enough to have a conversation with two people who were in prison in the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. When asking them about challenges and ways to break the cycle of violence they stood firm in the idea that the transformation has to come from each individual’s will, they were very aware that the fault was only theirs and they have to pay and learn from this. My “structural violence” lenses first did not want to fully agree with what they were saying, there are many structural issues in the US (and the whole world) to solely blame yourself for where you are. And I am not talking only about the institutional level, but also at community or family level. But obviously, how can I argue or doubt their experience when they are the ones who know what is actually going on? It was a really eye opening experience, because I am usually thinking about changing the structures to achieve peace, but in order to do so we need to work individually. They were a great example for this, but it was also a great example of the relation in the opposite direction: in order to achieve individual transformation there has to be structures in place to support it (as it is the case with all the programs offered in this Correctional Training Facility.)

For me, this relationship between the structural and the individual transformation is linked with the relation between complexity and simplicity. There is nothing that could be consider simple in the field of peacebuilding (not working in the structural or individual level), but there is much to say about the simple gestures that build peace. The perfect example for this is the story Lou Hammond told us about the prison guard who silently approached him to tie his shoe lazes. This completely simple gesture cracked what he calls the glass ceiling of insanity and sparked his individual transformation. My takeout (which luckily is not new but is well needed to be reminded of) is that at the same time that we, as peacebuiliders, have to design and/or implement complex programs, we also must engage in those simple gestures daily to build peace around us.

Like these ones explained here, other “coupled” terms that at one point I saw as opposed to each other (some of them more intuitively than others) ended up being mutually connected and reinforcing each other. This is why when Megan mentioned “deconstructing dichotomies” as an strategy to build peace during Jerome Sigamani session I immediately connected to all these thoughts that were going through my mind. And the idea of deconstructing dichotomies does not refer to the type of “dualities” I have been writing about in this post (they are not dichotomies), it talks about diluting the borders between us and them, understanding that the differences that there are between different people are not opposed. There are reservations to this approach (like to all the ones we could adopt) but I do feel it is a beneficial and necessary strategy for bringing security and peace, for reshaping the structures and the way individuals understand each other, for narrowing the gap between complexity and simplicity, for peacebuilding (and building peace.)

Historical Parallelism

On Sunday, we went to see Hamilton: An American Musical at the Orpheum Theater. As the Broadway nerd that I am, I was extremely excited to see – again – one of my favorite musicals. Although I recognize its many flaws, I enjoy this show because it combines beautiful music and the ironies of history. Many of the issues and debates explored during the play showcase that America today is still haunted by the very same phantoms than at its foundation.

The number “Cabinet Battle #2” depicts the debate between Secretary of State T. Jefferson and, Secretary of Treasure A. Hamilton on the issue of neutrality of America in France’s revolution. In the last verses of the song, Hamilton raps “If we try to fight in every revolution in the world, we never stop. Where do we draw the line”? I smirked at this replica; it underlined in the plus two hundred years debate on the role of America in the world scene. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the USA’s question. And although, this country foreign policy has evolved and transformed over the years, its compromise or need to help fights for democracy – or supposedly –  has persisted. Even today, the topic on America’s role in the global scene is still up for debate and thus every time there is civil or military unrest, this country falls down the same rabbit hole than Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s. Under this vision, one could argue that the origin of manifest destiny can be traced back to 1789.   

Another historical parallelism depicted in this play is the political polarization of the government. Often I hear in the news that we live in an age of extreme polarization. Yet, seeing Hamilton, I could not help to notice that the newly formed American people were as divided than it is today – or almost. The fights about foreign policy, wall street, and political substitution have carried over the years. In both cases, the cabinet fracture has bled into the media. In the times of the founding fathers, they would express their disdain in op-eds in newspapers and, today over twitter. Needless to say, the first ones were much more eloquent. Maybe one day Trump’s tweets will become an elaborated number for a groundbreaking musical. It took Lin Manuel Miranda seven years to write his second Tony-awarded play and it opened in 2016. And although the theater is a place to escape from reality for a few hours, during the last presidential campaign the performance was a more eloquent – and much less depressing – mirror of the American political reality.

Overall, Hamilton: An American Musical, is one more example of the American dream. The theater burst in cheers at the line “Immigrants we get the job done” during “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”. Hamilton was an immigrant from Saint Kitts and Nevis that ended in the $10 bill. It is a tale about pulling oneself by the bootstraps – even if the myth is in its death bed and the cases of success are less and less common, it is still real. The author of the play is the vivid illustration of it.   

History is cyclical, nevertheless, if we fail to learn from it, like America, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes.

“Man and History are one; it is Man that makes history, but it is History that made man”. – Vercors  

Possibilities of a Peace Education

By: Cassandra Cronin

I enjoyed Qamar Huda’s session on “Peace, Education, and Conflict Studies” because it provided a way to dissect a school’s formal curriculum, and analyze the reasons why certain subjects focus on the topics they do. For example, it hadn’t dawned on me how problematic it is to center a history curriculum on wars and other violent conflicts. When we were tasked to create our own school curriculum, it was, of course, extremely difficult. Perhaps because my education brainwashed me into believing that history must evolve around war, and that wars constitute one of the most efficient ways to organize historical events. My group quickly figured out that decolonizing the curriculum would allow for much more creativity and freedom in the classes and activities that could be offered to students. For instance, we proposed a core peace education class for first-year students, English classes that would teach students conflict resolution and communication skills, and history classes would highlight non-Western countries and cultures. The informal curriculum included events such as national night outs, hiking trips, parental support workshops, and potluck dinners.

This imaginary curriculum was the polar opposite of what I experienced. I completed middle school and high school in Georgia, so many of my history classes followed a conservative curriculum focused on “southern” history. We spent the majority of the year learning about War World I, War World II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War. This was in part due to my textbooks, most of which were created to be approved for Texas state schools (Texas is one of the largest textbook buyers in the U.S. meaning many writers strive to write books that align with the state’s curriculum). These textbooks would omit certain major historical events, or spin others to fit a certain narrative. Some of the most controversial proposed changes for textbooks included calling the slave trade the “Atlantic Triangular Trade” (pretending slavery never happened) and calling President Barack Obama “Barack Hussein Obama” (not acknowledging that he was president). On the other hand, these textbook writers have figured out ways include opinions, such as justifying McCarthyism and general anti-communism sentiments, masked as historical facts.

Just like textbook makers in Texas tried to rewrite history, I also had teachers who attempted to do the same. Some teachers falsely labeled the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression”, claiming the entire conflict was about fighting for “states’ rights.” When we covered the Civil Rights Movement, we discussed figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. We did not learn about black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party, or more contested activists such as Angela Davis. Qamar’s session helped me come to the conclusion that many schools’ curriculum are designed to brainwash students into believing a specific narrative and imposing its own version of American history. Figuring out ways to change schools’ curriculum to not be centered on war, while including people often forgotten in history, would be incredibly difficult but necessary.

“History Has Its Eyes On You”

By Zoe Jannuzi

In Julian Barnes’s book The Sense of An Ending, there is a section where the narrator recalls a history lesson in which the students are asked to define history. The first student called upon responds that “History is the lies of the victors,” to which the professor responds, “Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” The second student responds that “History is a raw onion sandwich.” When prompted to explain himself further, he says, “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.” Lastly, the third student, when asked, replies that “History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” While I prefer the third definition, I think the three come together nicely to encompass the discipline of history.

This week in Qamar-al Huda’s session, we were asked to think about the field of peace education. Incorporating peace education in schools involves creating formal peace studies courses, integrating peace studies into other disciplines, and bringing informal peace practices into community life. A critical aspect of the peace curriculum is the focus on re-defining history. Instead of merely defining history by periods of violent conflict, we must widen the circle to bring in social change movements, arts, music, culture, invention, etc. This is difficult. But, before we even attempt to re-think the way we have written history, we must consider why teaching history matters.

“History is the lies of the victors” & “the self-delusions of the defeated.”

If we see history as a method for recording lies or self-delusions, the purpose of history is to build national/ community identity. Thus “changing” history would be changing national identity. Whether they have deluded themselves or lied to others, people are unlikely to want to re-frame history because they’d then have to reckon with a more plural past.

“History is a raw onion sandwich.” “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.”

If we see history as the study of cycles of human achievement/ failure, the purpose of history is to learn from mistakes. Re-framing the past may disturb what is seen as a victory, and what is seen as a failure. This again requires an interrogation of community values, identities, and culture.

“History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

If we see history as an imperfect discipline, the purpose of history is not to provide objective fact, but rather to analyze the information we have, and determine what stories are left out. Re-thinking history in this way can be very uncomfortable for the majority group. The stories of those who have been systematically oppressed are often not as comprehensively recorded as the stories of the majority group or oppressor are.

Ultimately, I reject the idea that history can ever fully be encompassed, whether it includes our peaceful moments or not. To catalog objective truth is impossible. In fact, I believe there is no such thing. The imperfection of words impedes the conveyance of “objective truth.” Similarly, though objectivity is often thought of as devoid of emotion, history devoid of emotion fails to capture an essential aspect of the human experience. But… I do like the theory (and practice) of peace education. When you define history as the complete record of the human experience, peace education can’t widen the discipline of history enough to fulfill the definition. However, if you narrow your definition of history to one of the three in Barnes’ book, the subject of peace education begins to become useful.

If history serves to create a national identity, steps must be taken to encompass as many of the stories of the residents of that nation as possible. This necessitates telling the stories of inventors, artists, musicians, activists, non-violent leaders, pop culture figures, marginalized peoples, and many others not connected to the military or wartime apparatus.

If history is simply a way to learn from and reflect on past mistakes, you must be sure to record as many challenges as possible. Although learning from the mistakes we make in war is necessary, learning about the mistakes we make as societies in peace may be just as important, if not more.

If history will always be imperfect, we must learn how best to tell our collective story. History books must be diversified and analyzed for misinterpretations and/or flaws. Although our documentation will always be inadequate, we must learn to put aside as much personal bias as possible when documenting or analyzing history.

I believe we should institute a peace education curriculum, mainly as related to the study of history. There will be significant pushback, but this is no reason for keeping history as it is. Even disregarding the question of whether to integrate peace into the curriculum, I believe most would agree that current written history is severely lacking in diversity of perspective. The lessons we would learn, and the multiplicity of truths we would have to consider as a result of implementing a peace education curriculum, make it well worth it.

A Visit of A Lifetime.

By Duke Huang

The experience of visiting a maximum-security prison and a lower-security prison made me realize how important prison abolition movement is. From ending solitary confinement, death penalty, increasing more access to library and legal information, rights to the prisoners to abolishing prisons. Even though it would be almost impossible to abolish prisons now, it is still important to advocate for the prisoners and fighting for their rights. But I do think the end goal should be total prison abolition. If we have much more resources on crime prevention and a culture of being open about emotions and vulnerability, we would not need to spend almost $90 billion dollars on building and maintaining prisons. Moreover, hearing from Lou and the two inmates whom we had a chance to talk to, I believe that change really needs to come from the individuals. Those who are willing to change would use the tools they need to achieve what they hope to achieve, and the current system should provide more resources, such as mental health assistance, arts and crafts, useful skills, to the inmates so that they can get to that point more easily and quickly.

            I still can’t accept the fact that we basically build a city just to house a population that we think shouldn’t be in ours, and in order to not see it, we intentionally build it as far away as possible. I was very unease about the normalization of prisons. I do understand that people who work there treat it as their jobs and take it very seriously. But just say this is a prison, and this is how it works here seems to be a bit irresponsible to me. I appreciate the work the prison staffs have done, but I just wish that on the political and cultural level we would take the issue much more seriously than we are now. 

            Visiting prisons as outsiders can be controversial for all sides. Using the analogy that a prison is like a city, how is it different from us visiting another city as tourists? We visit where they sleep, where they eat, what they eat, where they practice religious beliefs, where they hang out and where they work. Not to mention we have to go through metal detectors and show our ID before going in. I believe that if the goal of the visit is to learn, then we should grab every opportunity we can to learn more about their lives, to experience what they have to go through and hear their own personal stories. Even though we should not normalize prisons, we should also not treat it so differently that we inadvertently disrespect them. 

            Finally, on the topic of guilt. Personally, I feel guilty all the time, and I do think that sometimes it is impeding me from taking actions. I think what Lou said yesterday is very important that we need to transform our remorse into actions. As much as guilt can be useful in making people apologize and recognize their wrongdoings, it doesn’t solve the problem or change the history. What’s been done is done, what could be done is to address the victim’s needs and to prevent the same thing from happening again. And through that, I think we can achieve both peace and justice.

Early Warning / Early Response

By Duke Huang

            Learning about early warning (EW) and early response (ER) was eye opening for me. Because I would like to see conflict being prevented before violence takes place. EW and ER are about empowering local community. We need to hear their needs, acquire local knowledge and provide any skill training they would like to have. One important take away for me was that EW and ER can be implemented anytime during the conflict, which means that the conflict can be stopped anytime as long as there is enough ability and capacity for the community to stop it. When I was learning about Rwanda Genocide, I learned that the Hutus were using radio and to spreading hate speech to indicate whom to kill. They were telling people to cut down the “tall trees” (to tell the Hutus to kill the Tutsis). Now, hopefully, we have the ability and capacity to detect this kind of sign to prevent tragedy from happening again.

            One example of ER Madhawa gave was that they asked children to draw what their community used to look like, and when their parents learn about this, they would be eager to contribute to the map because they wouldn’t want to be left out from the process. When the map is complete, they would ask what kind of change the community members would like to see and implement local knowledge with experts on making the change. I think this is very strategic, not only because children would be happy to involve while the adults might be hesitant at the beginning, but also it is very inclusive of local members and knowledges, which is very sustainable.

            One of the biggest grievances for me during conflict is the violence against civilians. Despite of multiple conventions and international laws that prohibit violence against civilians, the deaths of civilians are still very prevalent in conflict. The use of indiscriminatory weapons, such as air strikes and land mines, are not only inhumane but also creating unnecessary casualties. There has been lots of research done about the use of drone strikes in eliminating extremist groups. They showed that the use is insufficient because the groups are often mixing and intentionally hiding with civilians. I personally cannot agree with the idea of “acceptable loss”, which indicates the casualties that are considered minor or tolerable in military operations. A Chinese proverb captures the essence of this idea: “It’s better to kill a hundred, rather than letting one go.” Whether or not the extremist groups would kill the civilians, I still think it is wrong for US and other countries to send drones and missiles from thousands of miles away from the targets and kill civilians before they could even notice the missiles are coming. It is also fueling the anger of the youth to join the extremist groups.

            Since the conventions and international laws have such limited power in preventing violence against civilians, I believe that EW and ER can be helpful. Some possible suggestions I have include recruiting local response teams to provide immediate support to any air strike. Another one is to engage local community leaders in having dialogue with the extremist groups to prevent them from hiding with civilians to decrease the number of casualties. 

Pleasant Surprises

By Joseph Hayashi

Having studied criminology and criminal justice in undergrad, I felt like I had a good idea about what was happening in our criminal justice system. The laws, sentencing, and careers were not foreign to me. I even knew quite a bit about the incarceration issues that we are having in the United States over the past years. I have studied and read a lot about the overcrowding, the bad conditions, and the toll being in prison has had on the inmates in the system. Also, having worked in a jail before, I thought I had some good insight and experience and would be prepared for what we were about to see but when we arrived at the Salinas Valley Prison, I soon realized that I was wrong.

I feel that being in the prison was a great chance for the class, but especially for me since I want to work with the prison population, because we really were able to see the dynamic that happens within the prison. Getting a firsthand look on how the inmates acted was an experience of a lifetime for us. I do wish we were able to see how the inmates acted while on the yard but unfortunately that was not possible this trip. The thing that interested me the most though was the interactions that involved the guards. I noticed that the guards had showed a high level of comradery with each other and initially I thought that that was just part of the Correctional Officer culture but then it dawned on me that that was necessary for them. The thought that they were constantly in danger and that in an instant they may never see each again must be terrifying. If I was in their shoes I most likely would act the same way with my fellow C.O.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the interactions between the C.O.s and the inmates. When I worked in the jail, I knew a lot of guards, that wanted to be C.O.s, who were very tough on the inmates and never nice to them. And then the image of C.O.s depicted in the media is always over being a hard ass. That was what I generally expected when coming to the prison. This is not what I experienced in the prison though. Most of the guards I saw were joking around with the inmates and talking to them like normal human beings. It was nice to see. I knew the guards could most likely be strict whenever they wanted to and that probably not all the guards in the facility were like this, but it was still nice to see some of them that way.

I think the only downside to this day was the debriefing session at the end of the day. While I think my classmates, all have very intriguing perspectives on the subjects we visit in this program, I don’t necessarily agree with everything some of them said. While I do agree that some of the conditions in the prison are indecent in many aspects, I think we still need to remember that the inmates are not the victims we just need to focus on. I do, adamantly, think that we need to improve the conditions in the prisons, but I don’t think we can victimize and forget that the inmates are there because of what they did.

I also don’t agree with the idea that we were fetishizing the prison system. I understand that in some instances that could and would be done by some people visiting the prison, but I don’t think we were in this situation. I feel that putting ourselves in those cells and cages were the only ways were would be able to really see the conditions that prisoners must go through, short of actually getting arrested and imprisoned. While I know that we will never really be able to experience the life an inmate must go through, I do still think we must try and put ourselves in a position to see those experiences first hand as much as possible.

Reflecting on Prison Visits

By Cassandra Cronin

After visiting the two prisons, even having reflected for a couple of days, I still don’t know how to feel about the entire experience. I’m not sure my emotions even matter. My takeaways from the visits should not be centered on what made me uncomfortable or angry (even though these emotions helped me formulate my thoughts). It was a privilege to see what many only read about or see on television—the ordinary person can’t walk into a prison and demand a tour. The hours we spent learning about the inner workings of the prisons, as well as listening to the perspectives of those who guard one of America’s most controversial institutions, was an incredible experience.

I didn’t enter the prison with any particular expectations, but a lot of what I observed did not match what is portrayed on television. The whole point of TV is to entertain, so it’s not hard to believe that many shows either romanticize or create fantasies surrounding inmates’ lives. For example, Orange is the New Black has received a lot of criticism about how it represents a women’s federal prison. Many disapprove of Piper’s naive character, or the ways in which the show downplays the role racial divides play in prisons. A&E’s Beyond Scared Straight has also received a lot of criticism as many aren’t convinced “scared straight” programs work. Giving money towards deterrence (scared straight programs try to “scare” minors into not wanting to go to prison, so that they’ll stop partaking in bad behavior), diverts funds from programs that actually stop minors from entering the criminal justice system. This includes health, education, and employment programs to family counseling resources.

On another note, a lot of the narrative concerning the inmates during the day, much like on television, focused on their willingness to complete programs to “better” themselves. I also remember hearing the world agency being used without acknowledging the implications behind the word. Determining inmates’ agency in relation to what educational or professional programs they could complete was ignoring the diversity of experiences that can be found in a prison. Inmates make a lot of decisions while serving their time. They can chose to complete classes, join prison gangs, commit acts of violence against others, or keep their head down and serve their sentence. There isn’t one experience that encapsulates what it’s like to be in prison, and there isn’t one narrative that explains the difficulties inmates face.

Past emotions, the improper representation of inmates on television, and debating agency, peacebuilders should focus on ways to improve conditions inside the prisons and alleviate the issues that feed the prison industrial complex (preventative programs, sentencing reform, educational and rehabilitative resources for inmates to name a few).