There are better options than the failing prison system

jail
oto Credit: Matthew Henry via Wunderstock (license)

According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), 12 men have died from COVID-19 in our prisons this last year. The DOC has to date failed to release their names. Who will mourn an unknown human being, behind the walls? According to the Department of Justice, there have been an estimated 300 deaths in Minnesota’s prisons since 2000 and hundreds more in our jails. Their families are demanding answers and building a movement.  

Prison, I am told, is an exercise in someone killing your life. Over the last six years while working with those inside and their families, I have witnessed constant abuse, forced slave labor, diabetes causing food and prison health care making money, by not providing health care.

I have witnessed the intentional isolation from community and the exorbitant charges assessed prisoners, people who have practically nothing and the weight of this on families, and children.

What do we make of the fact that thousands of men and women cycle through Minnesota’s prisons every year on technical violations of supervision and not new crimes? Roughly half of Minnesota’s prison population is there for nonviolent crimes. The massive investment in prisons—a 400% increase since 1980—has made us less safe. We abandon survivors of crime, and create new survivors through incarceration. 

An ex-prison commissioner put forward a “good time” bill designed to save money and get approximately 17% of those inside out early. This is indeed good. Yet in a sane country those who qualify would not be in prison.

There are better responses to felony violent crime then the slavery that is prison which only brings more violence, confusion, and despair.

Common Justice is a pre-trial diversion program for felony violent crime in New York City— those charged with attempted murder or worse, do not qualify.  Those who complete the two-year program—which nearly everyone does—get to stay out of prison. However, one can only enter the program if the person you physically hurt says yes.

Ninety percent of victims choose the program, not prison, for their attacker. In Common Justice, both parties receive wrap-around services and the perpetrator repairs harm done as much as possible, and, over the two years, demonstrates that they are a person who will never commit that type of harm again.

This is how we break cycles of violence and create safer communities.

Or consider Hollow Water, Canada, where the community took back control over the response to crimes because “jail wasn’t working.” They trained Native people as counselors and intervention workers, and used truth telling, cultural revival, and traditional restorative practices, like sentencing circles, to end the cycle of crime and to heal the next and future generations.

Lots of money was saved and recidivism was reduced. This helped build community self-sufficiency and power. If people don’t choose or succeed in these restorative approaches, prison is used as a fall back.

What would it take to break the cycle of oppression, violence, and incarceration in Minnesota? We need to model the examples of New York City and Hollow Water Canada and create survivor-centered responses to harm in every community.

You can learn more about those doing prison support and prison reform work at tc.iwoc@gmail.com and facebook.com/tciwoc.

David Boehnke is a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). He teaches social studies and lives in North Minneapolis. He can be reached at dboehnke@gmail.com.

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