A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
I often find myself in conversations with people who want to know what being in prison for 13 years feels like or how could I best describe what mass incarceration is. If there was one sentiment I can utter that would best describe what mass incarceration is, it would be to picture a fresh, ripe apple hanging from the vine bursting with nutrients ready to be consumed by the village.
What mass incarceration does is take this same ripe and ready apple and suck out the nutrients and render it empty. In a more literal picture, mass incarceration is not the image of some super-predator criminal without any useful skills and nothing to offer the community.
The real faces of mass incarceration are the capable young men and women who were eaten up during the war on drugs with all of its over-policing and mandatory minimums that, in collaboration with the school-to-prison pipeline, sent the average prison sentence through the roof, so now people are sitting in prison younger than ever for longer than ever.
Mass incarceration is the 17-year-old youth who was sentenced to 20 years in prison 15 years ago who now sits inside of some institution as a 32-year-old adult who has spent his entire adult life in a cage. In the state of Minnesota, this person could have spent these last 15 years entrenched in positive programming doing all that they could to pay their debt to society and giving everything they have to this system.
What the system will say back to this individual with brutal clarity is that it does not matter. They will send this same person to the county jail and deny this person access to certain programs that would enhance this person’s life. Instead, the system will continue to place this person in high-stress environments that do the work of decaying this fruit on the vine.
Because of the sentencing guidelines, which are a centralized approach to sentencing that do the actual work of turning human beings into numbers, this where this person will sit, feeling ripe and ready and praying for the chance to get home and contribute to the community.
Often in this space most people have done the eternal work of dealing with whatever decisions they may have made that landed them in handcuffs and feeling so far removed that there is no conscious connection between their crimes and their current incarceration.
When we think about mass incarceration, let’s think about these faces and the entire captive nation of young and vibrant human beings who could do so much to enhance the value of their communities. When we are searching for answers, let’s remember the great human capital that we have rotting away in our small towns in big prisons — fresh fruit rotting on the vine.
During these environmentally conscious times when we are looking for new ways to reduce our waste of natural resources, let’s also turn our attention to the criminal justice system and hold all of the policymakers and profiteers accountable who are getting rich off the industry of mass incarceration.
Let’s begin to look at mass incarceration for what it is and does, depleting us of our most valuable natural resource: human beings.
Kevin Reese is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.