WTF Wednesday

I would like to chat today about a topic that I have more recently changed my mind about.  Up until three or four years ago, I had very strong opinions about the criminal justice system, abuse of power by law enforcement, and incarceration. I thought the people in jail deserved to be there.

I believed that if people just did what they were told, then there would not be police shootings of unarmed people. Just don’t run and it will be fine. People who follow the law are protected. I believed in the death penalty and that people really were deserving of what they got. I thought the idea of rehabilitation and anti-recidivism work was a crock because “bad people” never truly change. It was all very black and white and very very simple. Don’t do bad things and bad things won’t happen to you.

What an jackass I was about this. I did not learn about these issues in school. These were not topics discussed in my social or professional circles. And these were not areas that I chose to explore on my own. I was completely and totally removed from anything having to do with the criminal justice system.

Since then, I have come to realize how terribly wrong I was, how damaging my beliefs were, and how much of what I thought to be true was based solely on my own experiences and interactions with the criminal justice system. In my late twenties, I started to learn more about the injustices in our system and the issues of mass incarceration after reading an article about women giving birth in prisons. I had never thought about it. Not even once. It had NEVER occurred to me that a pregnant woman could be incarcerated. I was so upset by what I had read about the conditions in which they give birth and the trauma they experience after, and it began to change my mind on several issues. Despite the fact that I was horrified about the experiences of some people in prison, I still overall did not feel empathy or sympathy for the huge majority of people currently incarcerated or those who had already served their time.

Not long after I came to this University, I attended an event for a student group we have called Project Rebound. The program works to matriculate students directly from the criminal justice system into education. Since it was started in 1967 at San Francisco State, it has spread to seven other CSU campuses (including mine in 2016), and has helped hundreds of formerly incarcerated people complete their college education.

I sat there in that room listening to these stories of hardship, mistakes, unbelievable challenges, and, eventually, successes. And I realized that these were not bad people. They weren’t criminals. They were just people trying to do their best. They were people who deserved a college education, a job that they were passionate about, a livable income, and a chance at a good life. From that point on, I decided that I would learn and change my perceptions of this population.

I watched some of the Democrat candidate town halls on Monday night, and I was surprised by the varying responses to the question of whether or not incarcerated people should be allowed to vote (I am VERY disappointed that Warren has not stated her position on this because I have been incredibly impressed by her ideas and policy plans thus far).

In a random poll of people I work with – most of whom have all the education in the world – over half said they either did not know at all if prisoners could or couldn’t vote OR they had never thought about it until last night. Several of those people also said that even though they didn’t know, they were against it and would not vote for someone who was for prison voting. WHAT. Yesterday, you did not know either way, but now you think it’s a bad idea?? That is such poor logic. Ugh. Most states have made movement towards undoing the very strict policies that restricted all ex-felons from voting, but only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated people to vote.

I used to believe that “criminals” had no business having a say in our government. They simply did not deserve it! They forfeited that right when they committed their crime. The thing that I forgot to realize all that time is that we are talking about people and about our fundamental rights as Americans. I failed to see that by denying incarcerated individuals the right to vote, then we are denying them one of the foundations of our democracy – the right to self-govern. I have since learned about the concept of “civic death” (the suspension of rights that citizens have), and the progress we have made in restoring a variety of constitutional rights for prisoners. As stated by Chief Justice Earl Warren in a 1958 case, “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.”

Incarcerated citizens are subject to the laws of the United States, yet they have no say in those laws and the people making them. That seems deeply problematic. They are already being punished by their loss of liberty, but they should not lose their rights associated with citizenship. We have already taken their ability to earn an income, choose how they spend their days, and see their loved ones. Serving time is hard and it is a severe punishment. What does preventing their right to vote actually achieve? Who is out there deciding not to break into a car because they want to vote in the next election?

There are an estimated two million people who are incarcerated across 50 states. By allowing them to vote, then politicians would have to go to prisons to hear from prisoners and listen to their experiences. I believe that there are a lot of people who should absolutely be incarcerated because of their crimes, but that does not mean they should be mistreated, abused, or denied their basic rights of citizenship. They should and deserve to have a voice if we are ever going to start really digging into the issues of mass incarceration, violence against prisoners, racism, and other injustices faced while imprisoned. Our justice system should be accountable to the people going through it, and it is a significant problem that we have to grapple with.

I know for many people that this is a state’s rights issue as outlined in the 14th amendment, but Congress also holds the authority to make this determination. I have not covered all of the minutiae surrounding these policies, but I also cannot think of a single reason why we should continue to strip people of their most fundamental American right because they are incarcerated. I’ve since become involved as a mentor to some of our formerly incarcerated students who I now consider to be dear friends. It has been a privileged and honor to know them, and to witness all of the good they are doing for this world.

I know that many of you will feel differently about this, and I support your right to feel that. I also know I still have a lot to learn, so if you have suggestions, then please pass them on! These are books recommended that have been recommended to me (I have not yet read them) by some of the awesome faculty I work with who advocate for reform:

Upstate: A Novel by Kalisha Buckhanon

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons|

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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