Tag Archives: alternatives to incarceration

Nurturant parent politics: reframing to promote transformative justice

I recently gave a brief presentation in transformative justice to four people I didn’t know. Since TJ is so incredibly unlike the traditional criminal justice system and because I didn’t want to leave these four people thinking I was a nutcase, I framed the discussion around two hypothetical situations:

A stranger breaks into your car and steals your car radio –  what would you do?

Your brother, sister, child, or parent breaks into your car and steals your car radio – what would you do?

This seemed like a good way to get people rethinking responses to crime. I figured that people would be more interested in thinking creatively and addressing individual situations if they had an investment in what happened to the offender. I also figured that more people would want to know (and deal with) why the crime was committed in the second scenario. That’s transformative justice, baby.

Ironically, three days later by complete chance I happened upon Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff. Surprise! There’s an actual foundation of knowledge for what I was doing.

Have you ever heard of the “strict father” and “nurturant parent” models? I sure hadn’t. But I was inadvertently doing exactly what Lakoff argues we (progressives) have to do – among other things – if we’re going to appeal to the masses: Take a strict father viewpoint and reframe it around a nurturant parent viewpoint.

In a nutshell, the strict father model works like this: a strong male figure makes the rules, punishes anyone who disobeys, and doesn’t engage in dialogue or ask permission for jack. Individual success and competition is viewed as the hallmark of national progress. Anyone who threatens that model, tries to help the “bad” children who deserve their lot in life for failing to make a lot of money and achieve traditional success, is actually hurting themselves and everyone else by getting in the way of discipline, order, and morality. Within this framework, things like free drug treatment programs, welfare, affirmative action, etc. are detrimental to the natural development and success of the nation’s “children” (literal and figurative), who will actually learn and thrive through punishment, not support.

In contrast, the nurturant parent framework looks like this: gender neutral parent figures support their “children” by empathizing, understanding their needs, and providing resources to meet those needs. They believe children need safety and support to thrive, as well as freedom to learn on their own and actualize their own potential. Basic tenets are empathy and responsibility.

I think that analysis is pretty boss, frankly, because all of a sudden I get why abortion and gay marriage matter so much to conservatives. I get why our foreign policy seems to center around doing whatever the hell we want, and even when our interests are in agreement with an agreement, not signing anything anyway. Y’all should probably read that book.

It really, really is not rocket science to figure out what this has to do with the prison system. What I accidentally hit on for my little presentation was that our current system runs within the strict father model; transformative justice aligns with the nurturant parent model: What went wrong? What can we do to prevent this in the future? What is my (or my community’s/state’s/country’s) responsibility to aid in that prevention?

The truth is, everyone can understand both structures. Most people utilize both structures at different times, but even if you only use one you certainly encounter both in books and movies and your neighbors’ lives and your children’s schools and on and on. Which is dope for two reasons: because conservative viewpoints now seem more like differences of opinion to me than outright craziness, and because now I know that everyone can understand transformative justice when it’s presented in the right framework.

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Jails increasingly act as mental health care facilities

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that the Illinois mental health system “is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health care provider in the state of Illinois.”

Dart’s statement comes at a time when the state is planning to shut down six of its twelve mental health centers by the end of April. Though the reduction is expected to save the state 2 million dollars, critics believe the costs to everything from prisons to emergency rooms will far exceed the short term savings. Not to mention the costs to those suffering from mental illness – costs that will manifest themselves both economically and otherwise.

Of the 11,000 or so prisoners at the Cook County Jail, Mr. Dart estimates that 2,000 people suffer from mental health problems. Many of these 2,000 are jailed for minor crimes but commit new infractions due to stress and confusion and see their short sentences run on and on. Corrections officers spend far more time with their mentally ill charges than with the general population, and receive only limited training.

Corrections officers and administrators don’t want people with mental illness to be in jail. People with mental illness don’t want to be in jail. People in jail don’t want people with mental illness in jail. So why are they in jail?

“Because [the police department] is the only place left to call,” suggests Amy Watson, associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Fancy that: a situation in which instead of addressing a problem, we choose to hide it behind bars.

Resources for people struggling with mental illness were already scarce. Cutting them in half means that waiting lists will be longer, access will be more limited, and existing services will be over-extended.

And when the mentally ill are incarcerated? Problems abound for prisoners and officers alike. Incarcerated people who are mentally ill are more likely to refuse to follow orders or even act out violently against CO’s. In response, CO’s are more likely to throw mentally ill people in solitary confinement, which frequently exacerbates the problems they are already experiencing. In fact, mentally ill people in solitary confinement make up the majority of prison suicides. This is especially sad when one considers that these suicidal people are often in jail in the first place because of simple drug possession or vagrancy.

And if they are released, they typically leave with up to two weeks of their medication. In addition to the challenge of finding a health provider who can renew their prescription, many of them are uninsured, and will have to wait at least 45 days for Medicaid approval. And that’s just one aspect of the enormous challenge that mentally ill people face upon re-entry. Thus it is no surprise that mentally ill folks are among the most likely to recidivate.

Check out the NYT article here.

Or hear from people with mental illnesses during a similar reduction in services that Texas went through a year ago in this video from the Texas Tribune.

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New Jersey diversion program sparks familiar debate

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is promoting the use of treatment before prison for low-level drug offenders. Though Christie promotes this as a money saving venture and is interested in diverting only the lowest-level offenders, it’s still lovely to see any moves away from expanding the prison system.

Ironically, the most significant objections to this move come from advocates for addicts. Elizabeth Thompson of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance argued, “It takes months for the general population to get help, but if you get arrested you’d get help more quickly. I question the fairness of that.” Check out the story here.

True dat, Ms. Thompson. But what’s the real problem here: that people who have committed crimes might receive the kind of assistance that would allow them to stay drug – and crime – free? Or that New Jersey has thus far failed to provide enough resources for everyone to get the help they need in a timely manner?

Fifteen years ago, a similar debate went on in New York state. Corrections Officer unions were up in arms about the public education grants that incarcerated people were receiving which made college education in prisons a possibility. CO’s in New York facilities were cheesed off that incarcerated people were getting free college educations while they couldn’t afford to send their children to college.

Instead of this race to the bottom in which no one wins, Thompson and other critics should be asking why the government can’t shell out money for drug treatment resources for all. Certainly if they weren’t paying to incarcerate roughly 7,000 drug offenders they’d have some extra bill$ to throw around.

Oh, and the folks who objected to the use of public education grants for incarcerated people were successful. Grants for higher education were revoked, and college programs were pulled out of correctional facilities state wide. I’m pretty sure that the working class still has just as much trouble paying for their kids’ education, but on the bright side at least we’re not coddling those darned criminals anymore.

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Chicken soup for the prison abolitionist’s soul

Transformative justice sees crime as an opportunity to build a more caring, more inclusive, more just community. Safety doesn’t lie in bigger fences, harsher prisons, more police, or locking ourselves in till we ourselves are prisoners. Safety and security – real security – come from building a community where because we have cared for and included all, that community will be there for us, when trouble comes to us. For trouble comes to us all, but trouble itself is an opportunity.

- Ruth Morris, Stories of Transformative Justice, p 21

Ruth Morris was a Canadian activist, scholar, and Quaker. She was at the forefront of the early prison abolition movement, and a founding member of the International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) which is one of the most prominent abolitionist groups working today.

All of that would be reason enough for me to read what she wrote, but the reason that I really get all hot and bothered for Ruth Morris is that she worked in non-profits her whole life, regularly spending time with the people she was advocating for. We live in a world where that’s easy to avoid, and she didn’t. Boss.

So rewind for a second to me a year ago at my teeny tiny coffee shop table, reading Morris’ Stories of Transformative Justice. Pretty soon I was embarrassing the heck out of myself, because I was crying in public. Not eyes watering, dabbing at the corners crying, but tears-and-snot-everywhere crying. It was pretty gross, but it was totally justified because the stories were so moving. I’ll synopsize an example:

One of the stories that Morris tells is about a family with a six-year-old boy. This boy is charming, loving, adored by his parents and his teacher. Then, one day he leaves a little late from school. He is crossing the cross-walk by himself, and a car comes racing around the corner. Either the driver doesn’t see him there, or he can’t stop in time. He hits and kills the six-year-old, leaving his parents childless.

Obviously the parents are crushed. And angry. Angry at God, and fate, and the idiot 16-year-old kid who thoughtlessly drove well over the speed limit past an elementary school.

As Morris tells it, that night the father is absolutely beside himself with grief and anger, and doesn’t know what to do. And then something clicks. One life is over: his little boy will never come back. But now another life stands to be lost as well.

The man goes to his wife and tells her what he wants to do. There isn’t anything they can do for their son now, but maybe there is something they can do for the sixteen-year-old who killed him. And his wife agrees.

The couple petitions the court to drop the charges against the young man. He is grateful, and incredibly remorseful. But they don’t stop there. They also give him a part-time job at the man’s business, and eventually help pay his way through college. He becomes a regular fixture at holidays, a member of their family.

This is a story Morris read in a Canadian newspaper, though to my ears it sounds almost biblical. It is an incredible thing to imagine offering emotional and economic support to the person who killed your son, but it is also clear that what everyone gained from that situation far outstrips what anyone would’ve have gotten from a prison sentence.

Transformative justice takes a lot of forms, but whenever I think about it now my first thought is about two parents who are willing to not only forgive but to love the person who killed their only child, and who gain so much from that willingness.

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The sunny side

About a year ago now, I was feeling cranky. I was up to my armpits in my thesis project, writing about transformative alternatives to incarceration for young women. Or at least, I was supposed to be writing about transformative alternatives, but it turns out that in order to talk seriously about transforming something you really need to explain the necessity for transformation first. So actually I was writing a thesis on all the ways that young women (specifically poor, young women of color) get royally screwed by the criminal justice system, the detention system, and society as a whole. I know it sounds like a party, but it was actually getting to be a downer.

One night I tossed about six books and a ginormous notebook and my laptop into a bag and hauled it out to a coffee shop. I precariously balanced my laptop, notebook, and (obviously) black coffee and 7,986 calorie “snack” on a table built for one half of a person, and chose a book at random from my stack.

Ruh roh. This book looked real cheesy. I had gotten it through interlibrary loan (yay, libraries!) because it was one of about two books ever to have the words “transformative justice” in the title, but come on! I was writing a serious thesis here!

OK, so I think you know where I’m going with this. I opened the book exclusively to confirm my suspicions and eliminate something from my devastatingly long list of shit-I-have-to-read, and I was hooked. Truth be told, it was kind of cheesy, but in the best possible way.

Because I have a lot to say about this book, the ideas it discusses, and the oh-so-incredible author, Ruth Morris, I’m going to save the stories themselves for a later date. For now, I’m going to leave you with a brief description of transformative justice, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Transformative justice uses the power unleashed by the harm of a crime to let those most affected find truly creative, healing solutions. Transformative justice includes victims, offenders, their families, and their communities, and invites them to use the past to dream and create a better future.

As someone who is a little bit preoccupied with action steps, my immediate thought was, “That’ll never work.” And that’s why I spend all my time whining about what’s wrong with the current system. Because we can’t forget that the current system doesn’t work. There’s no real evidence that it reduces crime significantly or increases public safety. And in the meantime, it’s hurting a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways. Thus, dismissing transformative justice outright just because it doesn’t sound feasible is not an acceptable reaction given our current context. So if you are, stop that right now!

But I’m sounding like Negative Nancy again, so I’m gonna shut up. Come back for story time tomorrow.

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Harm minimization

In 1999, Portugal had a serious drug problem. One percent of the nation’s people were addicted to heroin. Folks were dying of overdoses, health complications, and H.I.V. due to sharing needles. The prisons were full, and the government was exasperated.

In a last ditch effort to do something, Portugal decriminalized personal drug use. They still prosecute drug dealers and traffickers, but people with less than a ten-day supply of pretty much any drug are generally sent to counseling, not prison. They call this “harm minimization” because it’s focused on reducing violence, disease, overdoses, and other threats to the health and safety of both addicts and the rest of the population.

I recently read Michael Specter’s “Getting a Fix,” a New Yorker article that compares Portugal’s approach to that taken in the U.S. He asks whether the “harm minimization” approach is working: Are incarceration rates down? Hospitalizations due to drugs? HIV and AIDS? The answer, for Portugal, is yes.

But he misses what I believe is the more important point when he fails to discuss the qualitative benefits of resisting the urge to incarcerate folks picked up once, or twice, or even ten times for simple possession. Above all, those people are allowed to continue living their lives. They can be productive employees, parents, partners. They won’t have to worry about re-entry stresses like finding a new job, getting a driver’s license back, or simply re-learning how to grocery shop. 

I like the phrase “harm minimization.” It’s an appropriate description of the way we approach loved ones with substance abuse issues. If you find out that your mother is an alcoholic, for example, you might be angry or frustrated, but my guess is that your ultimate goal will be to minimize harm – help her recover from her dependency while impeding as little as possible on the rest of her life. In fact, the vast majority of legal and illegal substance dependency problems are already treated this way, in America and elsewhere, through family intervention, private treatment, and emotional support.

No ones likes when someone they care about has an alcohol or drug problem, but we don’t typically advocate for our friends and family to be incarcerated, either. As a nation, Portugal has starting treating their citizens as though they care about them, and their families. Wouldn’t it be neat if we adopted a similar national stance?

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Four ideas from Angela Davis

Why should we get rid of prisons? Nobody said it better than Angela Y. Davis in her amazing little book Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2005). In a mere 115 pages Davis can take you from completely uninformed to possessing a pretty sophisticated degree of understanding. She is so cool.

But if you don’t feel like reading 115 pages today, or if you’re confined to your home due to mobility issues, or if your library doesn’t have a copy, or if for any other reason you are not currently able to read her absolutely brilliant text, I’ve compiled a little “greatest hits” list: four of my favorite quotes from the book, in order of appearance.

1. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it. (pages 9-10)

Why this is excellent: We can’t do anything about prisons until we are willing to at least momentarily suspend the assumption that we absolutely need to have them. There’s a lot of other crap that goes along with prison abolition, but none of it matters unless we’re willing to say “OK, so what if we could get rid of prisons?” Thank you, that’s a start.

2. The prison … functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers … It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism. (page 16)

Why this is important: Like any good twelve step program, we can’t get anywhere until we admit we have a problem. The prison system is a problem, but that is conveniently overlooked most of the time. Instead, we like to pretend it’s a solution. Thus not only does the system trick us into ignoring how much of a problem prisons are, it also helps us forget about how much we should be doing about other issues, like poverty and racism. Got a social problem? Call it a legal problem, lock some folks up, and you don’t have to think about it anymore. Remember how the Jim Crow laws of the postbellum South eased the social and economic transition away from slavery for white folks who wanted to hold onto white supremacy and an incredibly affordable labor pool? How about that time that the “War on Poverty” was replaced with the “War on Drugs”? 

3. Positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we [should] try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment–demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. (page 107)

Why I’m into this: We can’t think about how to deal with the prison system unless we recognize that what we’re dealing with is way bigger than that. This is not a prison problem, this is an everything problem. Pick a social issue, any social issue. Prisons are probably partially responsible for it, in some way a product of it, and are probably helping to keep that problem around. Heterosexism, sexism, racism, classism, American exceptionalism: I could go on all day. In the same way that you can’t go about addressing sexism without addressing racism, there is (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure) no way to fix prisons without fixing a bunch of other shit, too.

4. The alternatives toward which I have gestured … which can also include job and living wage programs, alternatives to the disestablished welfare program, community-based recreation, and many more … are associated both directly and indirectly with the existing system of criminal justice. But, however mediated their relation might be to the current system of jails and prisons, these alternatives are attempting to reverse the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world. (page 111)

Why this one, too: OK, so this may sound a little bit like number three, and God knows there’s enough of value in that book so that I probably could have picked a more diverse selection, but there’s something special about this one. The crucial point here is that everything that we do, from a reduction in sentencing to the establishment of a great transitional housing facility to family sentencing circles for youth, must be focused on “[reversing] the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world.” It’s not good enough to do something better than what already exists because reforms function – intentionally or not – to entrench the prison system in our world. It sounds a little like I’m saying let people rot in horrible conditions, because the worse prisons are now the more likely it is that we’ll get rid of them in the future. That’s not completely true, but it’s not completely false either. Food for thought, and more on this (and all the other points in this post) soon.

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