Secel Montgomery, left, who is serving a life sentence, takes care of an elder prisoner at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, California, September 16, 2011. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)
Last Friday, the day the NATO 3 were arrested, approximately 35,948 people were arrested across the United States. On Sunday, when at least 45 protesters were arrested at Chicago’s NATO summit protests, approximately 35,948 Americans - the number arrested on a daily basis in the US, according to FBI statistics - were handcuffed, read their Miranda rights (maybe), carted off to jail and booked. The plurality of those people were arrested for nonviolent drug crimes. Some of these people will be charged, convicted, prosecuted and jailed.
When bond is posted, some of these people will have relatives or friends who are able and willing to bail them out. Many will not. For most, there’s no grassroots bail fund, no jail support team waiting on the other side of the razor wire fence.
Unlike the NATO 3 (or the Chicago Seven, or the Haymarket Eight), these people will go on to become part of a vast, near-voiceless crowd of 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, most of whom are visible only in the somber mugshots posted to their state’s Department of Corrections web site. On this site, friends and relatives who know to look can view their loved ones’ height, weight, race, tattoos, scars, offense, sentence length and inmate number. No phone number is listed, because these people - let’s call them the US 2.3 Million - no longer have a phone number (or email address, or blog, or Facebook message box or Twitter account) that can be reached.
In stating these facts, I in no way aim to belittle the significant civil abuses that anti-NATO activists have experienced over the past week. Both the NATO 3 and the US 2.3 Million deserve civil liberties, human rights and fair treatment. And I cannot overstate my support and admiration for the veterans and peace groups that - in the face of Rahmian threats and media scare tactics - brought thousands of people into the streets to resist the NATO doctrine of endless war. Moreover, I know that civil disobedience and a willingness to strategically risk arrest are crucial tools for the success of nonviolent movements. (My consciousness as both a journalist and activist was formed through my involvement with the direct action group Voices for Creative Nonviolence.)
However, I wonder if these moments in the wake of mass activist arrests - specifically, when vocal activists (some of them white and middle class) are arrested by the dozen and thrust into the public eye - might be an apt time to spread awareness of the stark injustices perpetrated every minute, across the country, in the name of “criminal justice.” When folks who aren’t usually arrested (and whose friends, allies and civil liberties attorneys are enfranchised and outspoken) are subjected to civil liberties violations, institutionalized brutality, dehumanizing jail conditions and the sickening prevalence of moldy baloney sandwiches behind bars, a unique point of contact is sparked. It’s an opportunity for true empathy and empathy is the mother - or, at least, the cousin - of action.
In the interest of outing truth: I can’t claim even remote journalistic “objectivity” when it comes to this topic. I’ve had two close loved ones sent to prison in the past few years, one of whom is currently incarcerated. When I worked as a reporter, I covered prison policy and developed ongoing pen-pal friendships with prisoners, two of whom were serving life sentences and would be forever relegated to pen-pal status. I dream about the prison system. (Dream? This is one of those times that I wish “to nightmare” were a verb.) When I pass the boloney shelf in the supermarket, my stomach turns, even when its labels feature expiration dates well in the future.
But maybe all this is part of the point - if empathy is critical for action, mass arrests provide the action-oriented among us with a personally resonant jumping-off point to advocate for systemic transformation. When our friends or high-profile activists are thrown in jail, we’re struck with hard questions: what does jail do, for the inmate and for society? What do people do in order to end up there? How do other people who do those things avoid incarceration? Are there new, out-of-the-box ways of accomplishing the societal goals that jail’s supposed to achieve?
There’s a precedent for this kind of eye-opening-turned-advocacy. Kathy Kelly - co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, three-time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, probable saint-in-waiting and my hero - was sent to prison for three months for her nonviolent resistance at School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Kathy took the opportunity to write a detailed account of her experience, sharing the stories of her fellow prisoners and her insights into possible alternative justice systems. At bottom, Kathy wrote, “the cruel flaw in the prison system lies in the intent to punish people instead of help them.” Her time in prison prompted her to think deeply not only about the injustices perpetrated against her and her friends, but also about the faulty pretenses and tragically bad logic upon which the prison system as a whole is built.
“Entering the prisons offers an opportunity to better understand how the once-lauded war on poverty has become a war against the poor,” Kathy writes in her book, “Other Lands Have Dreams.”
It’s painfully true: Not only is poverty a primary motivator for crime, but it’s very often the determining factor for whether or not offenders will be able to avert jail time. Money means bail. Money means fancy lawyers. Money means a way out. So, overwhelmingly, poor people go to prison.
In many ways, the US 2.3 Million are an invisible 1 percent of the 99 percent: they go to jail poor, they work for slave wages, they’re deprived of basic rights and dignity, they can’t vote (thus forfeiting even the most modest semblance of democratic participation) - and then they’re released, even poorer, with little support, sporting a blotch on their record that will no doubt discourage prospective employers.
Despite the fact that the US sees a drug-related arrest every 19 seconds - and 81.9 percent of those arrests are for simple possession) - prison-based drug rehabilitation programs are overwhelmingly underfunded. Reentry programs, intended to prepare prisoners for life outside, are often perfunctory. For the US 2.3 Million, all signs point to a devastating conclusion: they’re not only punished, violated, dehumanized and ignored - they are also abandoned. Tracing the roots of this abandonment, Kathy Kelly asks, “What happens when compassion dies?”
With the images of highly publicized activist arrests still bright in our memories and on our screens, I want to ask: what happens when compassion is ignited? What would a grassroots prison reform movement to cultivate new ways of thinking about justice look like? Where does it start?
When I speak with people in prison, the most common refrain is the all-consuming pain of isolation: broken connections with family, long-lost friendships, severed ties to their communities and to society at large. The one semi-dependable channel for communication available to them is the mail service and letter writing can get demoralizing when mail call comes up empty a few weeks in a row. Phone calls are preciously limited, and in many state prison systems, recipients of prisoners’ calls must pay in advance before they can accept. (In Illinois, it’s ten bucks a pop for each short, in-state call.)
In-person visits to jails and prisons are sometimes so restrictive that they only remind prisoners of their loneliness and isolation. (For example, visiting an inmate in Chicago’s Cook County Jail means being shepherded into a small, cramped, musty room with more than a dozen other family members of inmates. The inmates appear on the other side of a hard, plastic wall. For the next 15 minutes, inmates and family members are permitted to shout back and forth through holes in the wall, straining to hear and be heard over the shouts of the other family members and inmates.)
Civic participation, of course, is universally denied. They can’t vote. They can’t attend town hall meetings. They can’t call Congress and would be hard pressed to boycott the corrupt corporations that provide their food and services. They certainly can’t march in the streets.
Given these barriers, any movement for prisoner solidarity must begin with communication: connecting with the real human beings that compose the US 2.3 Million and hearing their stories.
One simple way to get started: check out Write a Prisoner, Prisoner Solidarity or the Prisoner Correspondence Project and acquire a prison pen pal of your own. As activism goes, it’s not too glamorous - in all likelihood, it won’t make a public splash - but it’ll almost definitely make a private splash in someone’s life. (In the words of PrisonerSolidarity.org, “On the whole, a letter is the brightest point of the day for most prisoners.”)
Reaching out to a prisoner, one on one, opens the door to interaction with the larger society by which they’ve been abandoned. By virtue of simply addressing them by name (instead of by number or by offense), asking them questions and sharing your own stories, you’ll be recognizing their humanity. What’s more, these relationships will allow you to - if you so choose - build bridges that pave the way for a broader movement.
Picking up a pen or pulling up a Word doc and writing a one-page note to a random prisoner is one of the purest forms of direct action you can take. You’ll be trespassing across the razor wire fence, breaking down the barriers of disenfranchisement and digital disconnect and economic discrimination and $10 phone calls to perform a radical act of communication. An added bonus: chances are, you will not get arrested.
This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.
Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.
Previously, she was a senior editor and reporter at Truthout, writing on US defense policy, the criminal justice system, campaign politics, and immigration reform. Prior to her work at Truthout, Maya was contributing editor at Punk Planet magazine. She has also written for the Guardian, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, AlterNet, Z Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Common Dreams, the New Jersey Star-Ledger and others. She also served as a publicity coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Maya is on the Board of Advisors at Waging Nonviolence.