Colorado was in the news recently as commentators speculated where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman would serve his sentence. Several outlets pointed to ADX, the federal “Supermax” facility in Florence, and then went on to tout the prison’s defining features: small cells where inmates spend 96 percent of their day; levels of security and prisoners’ sensory deprivation that create conditions “worse than death.” Given El Chapo’s previous escapes from custody, the conceit seems to be that, finally, justice would be served. ADX exists precisely for monsters like El Chapo.
Yet, we know prisons do not work. In the case of El Chapo, reports related to the cartel leader’s initial capture suggest it is business as usual for drug trafficking in general and El Chapo’s absence has made things worse in Sinaloa. More to the point, what justice is served, what community benefits do we in Colorado, or anywhere in the U.S., derive from the trends in incarceration or the existence of prisons in the first place?
Data and analysis compiled across disciplines have long argued prisons are inherently inhumane and contribute to, rather than mitigate, the concerns they are charged with addressing. The rate at which incarceration has increased over the past 50 years is one this country’s greatest shames, a testament to institutionalized racism and xenophobia, to our failures to confront socioeconomic inequality, and to our endemic willingness to warehouse people considered threats to public safety and personal property rather than fostering accountability or solving the underlying problems that reproduce criminality.
Further, the prison system — which includes, at least, federal and state prisons, local jails, immigration detention facilities, as well as parole and re-entry programs — is an unsustainable money pit. The returns on this public investment are damaging and ineffective.
Angela Y. Davis diagnosed this disconnect between knowing what prisons are and a relative lack of intervention to improve or replace this system as, in part, negligence on the part of our collective imagination. Why our imaginations fail is perhaps not as important as whether we are able to revitalize them — and then start acting together and with greater focus to end a multigenerational crisis.
I’m endorsing no specific policy here. Instead, let’s jump start our creative thinking about ways to create a world with no prisons. First, it can be far more sustainable to be concretely for rather than simply against something. How would we need to treat one another? How would we, as individual local communities and larger, more abstract communities at state and national levels, come together to decide how to deal with those who violate community expectations, rules, and boundaries?
There are already dozens of ways communities and governments have begun to chip away at the perceived absolute necessity of prisons in this country. None of them will single-handedly undercut the notion that safety and security are contingent upon warehousing troublemakers. But each does a part to erode the “common sense” underpinning prisons. For example, look up what drug courts and mental health courts are doing to circumvent the imprisonment of drug law violators and those in need of mental health treatment. Look up groups and organizations that promote and train restorative justice philosophies. Look up advocacy for ending money bail or developing justice reinvestment or community justice planning. Look up community corrections as a solution in and of itself rather than a tool for parole and reentry. In Colorado, look at what Adams County is doing with the Safety and Justice Challenge program. Check out what Detention Watch is doing to disrupt ICE activities and the conditions in immigration detention centers.
Each of these provides jumping-off points for the imagination for considering communities where prisons are not the default and where those communities decide how to intervene and ensure its health and safety.
With involved community creating their own systems of mutual aid and collaboration, it is within the bounds of possibility that one day prisons will no longer exist. This is the case because we will not only be committed to more humane solutions to social problems, but because the feeding grounds where exceptional figures like El Chapo make their way will have been plowed over and repurposed for something deliberately attuned to community needs.
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