Do Police and Prisons Make Us Safer?
Morning, BPFers! It’s our last day of the month of Lies That Build Empire — can’t believe it’s already over. We were holding out hope for certain pieces to come through today, but the writers need more time, and / or what they made will be better suited to feature later. No big deal. But we didn’t want to end the month without questioning this potential big Lie: is it true that police and prisons, as institutions, protect and defend people, and promote peace and justice?
What follows is just a collection of resources and snapshots to start a conversation: definitely not a comprehensive treatment. All these examples come from the U.S. — the most-incarcerated nation in the world, with one in every 100 adults locked up — but please feel free to discuss situations in other places.
Just esterday, BPFers Mia Murrietta and Tyson Casey shared on Facebook some of the “Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States,” via the Center for American Progress.
- “FACT: While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. Like and Share if you think this needs to change.”
- “FACT: Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders — for the same crimes.”
To oversimplify a long and complex story, organizations like INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence, queer liberation groups, and other formal and informal community groups have been working for years to question mainstream ideas that the best way to address hate crimes or domestic violence is to criminalize them.
What does it mean to mandate further intervention by police and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) into communities of color already experiencing crises of deportation, or overwhelming and disproportionate lockup (see above)?
Out of necessity, communities large and small have been working to develop strategies for intervening in interpersonal harm that don’t involve calling police and risking further harm from state intervention. Many examples of this, including the day-to-day decisions of everyday people, but just to name a few formalized programs:
Safe OUTside the System, a collective within the Audre Lorde Project
Creative Interventions, with their 600+ page toolkit
UBUNTU of North Carolina (great archived material)
I’m sure we can name a lot more.
One of the speakers at the UC Berkeley conference, Dean Spade of the transgender legal aid organization Sylvia Rivera Law Project, also collaborated on a recent book called Prisons Will Not Protect You. Published as part of the Against Equality series of anti-assimilationist queers, the book points out that criminalizing “hate crimes” does not actually address systems of oppression and patterns of violence that marginalize queer people. In fact, it strengthens a police and prison force that disproportionately incarcerates transgender people — especially Black transgender people, of whom 47% have spent some time in prison. How’s that for safety?
Harms of police intervention and incarceration don’t just affect the people being locked up. Once someone goes to prison, entire families sometimes have to move in order to be near enough to visit their loved ones, which itself can be a time- and soul-sucking process. The top photo of this post, which I took at a rally I attended (along with 400 others) at a women’s state prison in Chowchilla, California, shows protesters held up a banner that read: BRING OUR LOVED ONES HOME.
Deportation, transfers to faraway facilities, and solitary confinement also tear apart families and communities.
And in news of what was already known, the New York Times recently reported: “Long Prison Terms Eyed As Contributing To Poverty.”
For most of their daughters’ childhood, Mr. Harris didn’t come close to making the minimum wage. His most lucrative job, as a crack dealer, ended at the age of 24, when he left Washington to serve two decades in prison, leaving his wife to raise their two young girls while trying to hold their long-distance marriage together.
His $1.15-per-hour prison wages didn’t even cover the bills for the phone calls and marathon bus trips to visit him. Struggling to pay rent and buy food, Ms. Hamilton ended up homeless a couple of times.
“Basically, I was locked up with him,” she said. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”
The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.
Again, this post is by no means exhaustive: we haven’t even touched explicitly on the War On Drugs, prisons and detention in the military (in breaking news, Breanna (Bradley) Manning pleaded guilty to misusing classified material), surveillance, drones, the history of policing, police brutality and murder, the meaning of “abolition” — so much to discuss! Good thing we have a whole year, if not more. Next month, keep an eye out for a Buddhist Peace Fellowship staff review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness.
I also haven’t really gone into how the lies that More Prison / Policing / Surveillance = More Safety contribute to building empire. But maybe that’s something we can get into in the comments. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
May all beings be safe; may all beings be free.