Above: podcast reading of this article. You can also listen to the author’s FGC Gathering talk (as an MP3 or on YouTube) upon which this article is based.
Is there a way I can describe the flavors and smell and taste of this place? It could be the smell of blood, or urine, or feces, but they are probably masked with detergents and disinfectants, or with fresh paint recently laid on by enslaved prisoners. Or it could be the smell of bureaucracy, enclosed in rooms full of orderly files, and matching furniture, and uniformed or suited officials who have learned to separate themselves from the “offenders,” or the “inmates” they are protecting us from. Or it could be long reflecting hallways—shiny clean—that purposely give you no sense of direction or way out. The environment is sanitary and sanitized, hierarchical to minimize the possibility that even the staff will think for themselves: they too are bound in regulations and procedures that don’t create care or consistency or a reduction of abuse.
Immeasurable harm to the human soul results in this belly. I’m talking about the soul of the keepers as well as the kept.
The first time I visited a prisoner, I was in my early 20s and working for the Friends Committee on Legislation of California in Sacramento. When we told the prisoner that two of us wanted to visit, he distanced himself from the idea as much as possible: “I know you are really busy. You shouldn’t really take the time. I’ll understand if you can’t make it.”
Once inside the gates, all conversation between my mentor and me ceased. It immediately became obvious that this was some foreign land built on assumptions far different from the ones I had previously known. We waited in a room next to the visiting room, where you weren’t allowed to bring a book, or newspaper, or anything that could help you meaningfully pass the time. Time is what there was plenty of there. When we were finally escorted into the visiting room, our friend found his way to our table, reached out his hand, and said, “Thanks for coming; I haven’t had a visit in 13 years.”
Years later, in a federal women’s prison, I facilitated a women’s group, one of whose members decided to throw a birthday party for herself. She invited a few friends and sat with them on her bunk, surrounded by a few candy bars she was able to purchase from the commissary. A guard came by and saw this scene, broke it up, and confiscated the candy. He gave no particular reason for this action. They were breaking no rules, but he just thought there must be something wrong because they were enjoying themselves in prison. Or maybe he was just having a bad day. The system allows him—even encourages him—to take out his pain on others. The women had absolutely no recourse, and they knew it.
To me, the beast is the embodiment of the evil of a system that operates as an intense harming force. We are all in its belly, drowning in its toxic juices as it swallows up our resources and delivers up more dangerous people into a world that is trained to hate them and block them from thriving on the outside.
I really don’t want to talk about sin at all. It is too tied up with individual failings, with personal wrongdoing. I want to address something even scarier: the “E” word. I have come to believe there truly is something called Evil out there, and rather than go to a place of denial, we really need to get acquainted with it. The E word for me is about systemic realities that force us into violent and abusive cultures that are almost impossible to resist or overcome. As with sin, Quakers don’t go there much—we prefer the positive. But, is it possible we don’t go there because most of us have had the luxury not to? Most of us are people of privilege, whether based on our color, our economic status, our education, our location in the dominant culture, or all of those things. The kinds of horrors that might put us smack up against capital E evil could be living in a war zone, living in a domestic situation that feels like a war zone, living with a skin color other than white, or living in prison. If we found ourselves in one of those social locations, the idea that evil exists would be really hard to miss.
I work on prison issues, so the beast that I want to unpack is what goes on in these very hidden institutions. There is a very high level of violence, engaged in by the keepers as well as the kept. Distrust and suspicion are the ruling factors, not sometime things people learn to engage in after they’ve been betrayed. People in prisons are constantly confronted with decisions: kill or be killed; show gentleness and vulnerability at your own peril; demonstrate leadership and you risk indefinite isolation and other punishment. The environment is so toxic that surviving is a constant struggle, and the chances of achieving something like wholeness are remote.
I know it is uncomfortable to stay in this place. But we can’t find our way out without knowing what we are dealing with. I want to focus on two features that I think illustrate the toxicity of this beast’s belly: racism and the use of solitary confinement.
The United States incarcerates African Americans at a rate eight times greater than that of South Africa at the height of Apartheid. This state of affairs is now being labeled “The New Jim Crow.” The original Jim Crow refers to racial segregation laws enacted after the practice of legal enslavement ended. The segregation actually began years earlier when there was a different set of laws for people of African descent than for the rest of us. For instance, in some places it was illegal for more than a certain number of people of African descent to stand together on a street corner. That double standard also applied to how people of European descent were treated when they committed crimes against those of African descent: for them, even rape and murder were rarely treated as criminal.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, illustrates how this works:
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
Alexander’s thesis is that it is the so-called “war on drugs” that has locked us into these racist policies. It has enforced discriminatory sentencing (particularly for crack and powder cocaine use) and parole practices, as well as given incentives to law enforcement to concentrate resources on drug arrests. It has closed the door to equal protection challenges throughout the legal system. Actual use and abuse of controlled substances is not higher in communities of color; studies show use to be about the same across racial lines. The differences come with enforcement policies, sentencing, and treatment of formerly incarcerated people. According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.
You can’t go inside prisons without being hit the first day—and I hope every day after that—with the fact that prisons are apartheid in the United States: that is, a system that forcefully separates people from people for the purpose of exploitation and domination. They are today and have been since the very first penitentiary was opened in the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late eighteenth century. They have always housed the people we don’t make room for in our society—culturally or economically. It is shocking. It is stark. It is shameful. The trouble is, it is hard not to get used to it over time. Please don’t get used to it, any more than you get used to any daily violence and cruelty that you witness.
In the United States, we have built entire prisons exclusively for long-term isolation, where people are spending decades in solitary. Our best estimate is that 90–95 percent of the people in solitary are people of color (prison departments refuse to keep the actual statistics).
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has been trying to shine a light on the situation of solitary confinement since the 1980s. We’ve done a lot of research, held conferences, and partnered with many other organizations. But the issue didn’t begin to get traction until the prisoners in these conditions began to go on hunger strike.
In 2011 prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California, working across the groups considered to be gangs, got together and prepared to go on hunger strike. It is important to understand the gang aspect of this problem, because in California over half of the people kept in these so-called Security Housing Units are there for supposed gang membership or affiliation—not behavior, just presumed status. These prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely, a practice which constitutes a sophisticated form of racial profiling since gang identity is usually about racial identity—or assumptions about racial identity made by prison officials. The only way to end their isolation is to agree to do something called “debriefing” which involves providing “information” to prison officials about gangs. If you don’t have that information, or think you might be risking your life to share it, you are kept in isolation. This practice is a complete violation of international law, yet it is business as usual in California and many other places, and it is the reason prisoners were driven to extreme measures to address their grievances.
They chose to work together across what was considered their gang differences and settled on a revered nonviolent tactic: the hunger strike. This was significant and historic. They then communicated their plans to groups like ours and said, “We won’t be successful unless you organize on the outside.” The result has been a statewide coalition with significant participation of family members and formerly incarcerated people, many of whom were afraid to speak out before or were kept from knowing the condition of their loved ones inside.
This is now 2014, and we have had three hunger strikes in California. What has come out of these extremely courageous actions are huge: national and international press attention; dramatic changes in administrative policies; a class action lawsuit that is moving through the process; legislative hearings at the national and state levels that are resulting in legislative proposals that are working their way through their respective Houses. Prior to these strikes, all the efforts AFSC had made to call national attention to these practices that constitute torture by international law standards seemed like a drop in the ocean. We don’t really know what impact we are having with the drops we initiate.
Nonviolence, in my experience, is a series of experiments in love. When I am meeting with the director of the Department—whom I don’t really respect—can I still bring that sense of faith and expectation to the meeting? If a legislator introduces a piece of legislation that doesn’t go nearly far enough, that doesn’t begin to eliminate long-term isolation or to stop requiring people to become informants in order to get out, can I still work with her and continue to analyze the provisions to be sure they don’t take us backward and educate people along the way?
Is there a way we can move this gargantuan system away from the violent and punitive system it is and toward a new paradigm of restorative justice based on wholeness and healing? It is very clear that a restorative and transformative system cannot exist alongside the punitive one; it truly has to replace it. How do we get from where we are now to that place—to a healing place?
We now have an individualized system that pits victims and people accused of wrongdoing against one another. (It does the same thing when it individualizes wrongdoing by judges, police officers, or guards, and very publicly disciplines them without tending to the systemic problems they were living under.) Then it does this funny twist and says “the state represents the victim—indeed the state is the victim.” This robs the victim of any role in the process other than to cooperate with the prosecution and push for the strongest possible sanctions. The real needs of victims are not addressed at all; healing is not even a part of the equation. In fact, the more broken people remain, the stronger they will be on the witness stand against the defendant.
Other countries do this very differently. They actually fully fund victim compensation from state coffers, because they see crime as a societal problem, not an individual one. The money to compensate the survivors is not dependent on prisoners paying restitution; it is provided by the state. Restitution, while a possible ingredient in a restorative model, cannot be added onto the punishment system without simply adding yet another punishment.
What would real healing look like? We could spend a great deal of time thinking about this and throwing out ideas. It would look like being heard, like being accompanied in one’s grief, like prioritizing people over profit or weapons or lower taxes.
Instead of the one-size-fits-all model of the prison system, with the same response to every crime and every circumstance (namely incarceration), we need transformation on a number of levels. Victims’ needs should be addressed, as well as the deficits that may be present in the lives of people who do harm to others, and there should be accountability for failed systems, such as the school system, the social safety net, or adequate healthcare. Real healing is a complex community process that requires us to continuously ask: what will make our society healthy?
Solving problems like this are well within our grasp; indeed Friends have been active on prison issues throughout our history, including current work with Alternatives to Violence Project, Prisoner Visitation and Support, and other programs pioneered by Friends. We know transformation is possible because we have seen it and participated in it.
Going back to the idea that nonviolent action is about experiments in love, we need to keep asking how love can change this system. Our love must be even deeper than our worst fears about crime and criminals. If we have already experienced extreme loss or trauma of the magnitude of losing a child to violent crime, it’s almost unimaginable to find the inner resources to take the next steps just to go on living. And yet a project for survivors, like EMIR Healing Center in Philadelphia, provides such help. Our biggest hope in overcoming a system so entrenched and damaging is to create a new normal. Right now we are trapped in the belly of this beast that is often referred to as the criminal justice system or the prison-industrial complex.
The love that John Woolman recommended we practice goes right to the heart of our faith. This is no “cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. It requires us to love those who we may think to be the least lovable. It definitely requires us to love our enemies, by whatever name we give them: adversaries, opponents, people who think and act differently from ourselves. I could not do this work without backup from the Divine, without surrendering to that Spirit who is the author of all things. It is deep work which will require the full support of our meetings. I see that support rising among us, and it gives me so much hope.
As with all experiments in nonviolence, it will take powerful imaginations coming from all over the country. Maybe the most promising way to do this work is to model transformative programs in as many locations as possible. The Northeast Region of AFSC is developing a resource center for transformative justice. AFSC is also putting together a network of Friends from across the country to strategize on issues of mass incarceration. (You can be added to this list by sending an email to Madeline Schaefer at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
We can be crushed by this beast, if it continues to squander the public treasury, throw away the lives of tens of thousands of our people, and turn out more dangerous people to our communities. Or we can bring the forces of love to bear.
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