Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration
by Emile DeWeaver, Editor
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence
I. The State of Our Union
Liberty is tied to our idea of humanity. Wherever we find Liberty lacking, we find men and women struggling against dehumanization. American Liberty comes as response to an empire that disregarded colonists’ human needs and tried to reduce them through taxes into means of production. Though the liberation of African slaves was rooted in both political and economic concerns, it also resulted from ethical concerns, i.e., the tension between the dehumanization of people and the Declaration of Independence’s promise of Liberty. Liberty, then, includes the unalienable right to have one’s humanity recognized by one’s nation, a right often denied to incarcerated citizens.
Liberty is mine by virtue of my citizenship. Though my crimes necessitate a temporary restriction of my physical Liberty, they shouldn’t abrogate my humanity. Despite this, criminal stigma – a punishment that extends beyond incapacitation – has become a normative component of American criminal justice. This stigma is supported by laws that limit my educational, employment, housing, and political opportunities, not just while I’m incarcerated, but for the rest of my life. This stigma means that tomorrow, a prison guard could beat me to death, say that I died of a urinary tract infection, and face no meaningful challenge. It means Americans routinely reduce other Americans to objects.
Often in prison, correctional officers reduce people of means to punishment. One man yelling obscenities at an offer can result in an entire population being locked in their cell for hours. Officers use blanket punishments to provoke those innocent of offense to become angry and inflict retribution on the offender. If one complains about being punished for another’s actions, officers sometimes respond, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”
Some officers reduce incarcerated people to a means of entertainment. A guard will stop a man and assail him with antagonistic (and often ridiculous) questions: “Hey, come here. Where you going? Why you taking a book to the hospital? Oh, you’re reading this Harry Potter shit? You like wizards and wands and shit?” The recipient of this abuse must endure it. He cannot walk away because the officer gave him a direct order: “Hey, come here.” To disobey would risk a disciplinary infraction (which for some means five to ten additional years in prison). It’s called: “Just fucking with you,” and if you have no sense of humor, well, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”
Institutionalized dehumanization in the American penal system implies that Liberty is alienable. I urge readers to examine this, and decide whether they want to live in a constitutional democracy where this is possible.
II. Standing for an American Vision
To some, it may seem hypocritical as I appeal to the principals of a society that I spent my teen years attempting to destroy. They might compare me to a cardsharp lecturing other card players about the virtues of honest play. I don’t want to argue about the messenger’s right or lack thereof, because whatever we conclude shouldn’t make Liberty alienable. I, however, would ask those who would use my criminal history to detract from my argument to consider, please, that though I’m being justly punished for crimes I’ve committed, I’m not being punished for who or what I am today. I was a criminal when I was 18 years old. I’m not a criminal now; many incarcerated people are not criminals now, and I submit that not only should our nation protect the human Liberty of everyone in prison, but it should be invested in restoring the physical Liberty of anyone who is no longer a criminal.
Imagine a woman named Jane goes to war for her country, serves with honor, and discharges as an American hero on January 1, 2000. How should Jane’s nation treat her? Of course, it should honor her sacrifices: she should enjoy health care, safe and affordable housing, employment opportunities, and a chance for advancement in her society. Imagine this same war hero murders a man on January 1, 2016. How should Jane’s nation treat her? While her nation shouldn’t deny the sacrifices Jane made 16 years ago, it can’t predicated her treatment, the Liberty afforded to her, on who Jane was 16 years ago. She must face incarceration. The following syllogisms sum up the principle underlying my assertion:
|A person is a constructive citizen: they should be treated well. Jane is a constructive citizen; therefore she should be treated well.||A person is a destructive citizen: they should be treated badly. Jane is a destructive citizen; therefore she should be treated badly.|
 Here, “badly” is used to indicate punitive measures and not inhumane treatment.
When Jane becomes a destructive citizen, her nation is justified in restricting her Liberty, notwithstanding her prior service. But just as Jane’s antisocial change in behavior necessitated a punitive change in her government’s treatment of her, a pro-social change in her behavior should necessitate a restorative change in said treatment. By the same principle, I was a criminal when I was 18 years old, and so my Liberty was restricted. But in a nation that promises unalienable rights to its citizens, I should be released if I become a constructive citizen.
I’m a constructive citizen who can talk about honest play, with as much standing as anyone at the card table. That means I’ve awakened to civic duty. I’m an incarcerated-American who wants to contribute what I can economically and socially to improve society. The first thing I have to contribute is my life story, which is a roadmap for policymakers trying to correct the cycles of violence that I’ve already overcome. I, at one time, felt so alienated from society that I believed myself justified in committing crimes against it, but I’ve also been walking my path to redemption for almost 20 years.
My rebirth emerged with my daughter. My love for her broke through the hatreds I had for society and myself, revealing my animosities as shells hiding the vulnerabilities – fear and rejection – that I didn’t want to face. I didn’t know how to face them, but I turned to the only power I felt I had in a cell, writing, and I survived my demons. I learned that knowledge and loving acceptance of my failings – and the failings of others – constitutes courage. With my survival came a survivor’s toolbox: empathy, insight, and the passion to shape the world into a place where others don’t suffer as you’ve suffered. I’m convinced that these tools are teachable. I became a writer to teach others these tools. I’ve dedicated the past five years of my life to giving these tools to other incarcerated men, and I started Prison Renaissance to spread these tools to all the women and men incarcerated in the world.
I want to tell you there are others like me in prison. They are the living solutions to failing schools in the inner-city, survivors with the empathy to connect with the gang-banger on your neighborhood, advocates with the insight and passion to transform that gang-banger into a survivor with a matching passion. Imagine the social transformations that would be possible if our solution to urban violence wasn’t to subtract people from the equation, but to transform them into living solutions. I want you to know that people like me comprise a minority of the prison populations, but that’s mainly because prison policies tend to produce the opposite of empathy, insight, and civic engagement. If people with the tools, the passion, and the proximity to at-risk communities comprised the majority of prison populations, imagine the social transformations that could be possible, from raising high school graduation rates to increasing the civic participation of marginalized youth. These things are possible if we change the way we approach crime and punishment. That’s the vision.
III. Reframing Incarceration
If we’re ever to see the vision of turning incarcerated people into agents of transformation, we have to end the nightmare. We need to examine and redefine the role of prison in society. Incarcerations’ primary function needs to be reduction of criminality within a framework consistent with American Liberty. Instead, our prison system has become a nightmare that destroys Liberty and promotes criminality.
Criminality is too complex to attribute to one cause, but it begins and ends with alienation. The reasons I felt justified selling drugs and employing violence are manifold, but part of it was that I felt like you hated e, like you disregarded my needs. As a teen, I lacked the tools to process the complexities of social injustice, so I reacted with hate for you and a disregard for you needs. I enacted my animosity and disregard for your needs by committing crimes, not against you, but them. I reduced you to my means of retribution against an enemy I couldn’t define. This human disconnection lies at the heart of criminality, which is why it’s vital that we build a new vision for our prison system.
Penal policies isolate incarcerated people – anyone who’s tried to visit or form a relationship with someone in prison can tell you that – and criminal stigma continues to isolate individuals even after they’ve paid their prescribed societal debt. In an ethical society, penal policies should aim to change a person’s behavior, but how is this possible when penal policies reinforce the alienation that leads to crime? It’s not possible. In fact, I can think of no strategy more likely to increase crime rates, incidences of broken families, and to increase suffering – in short, to reduce Liberty.
IV. A New Frame
I’m an incarcerated-American. I believe in a safer public, as you do, which is why I believe we need to approach crime and punishment in an ethical way, consistent with the promise of Liberty for every American citizen. What might that look like? I look forward to sharing my ideas, my life’s roadmap, in the coming months. In the meantime, let the debates begin. But let them not be about who’s toughest on criminals or how much money we might save if we reduce the time people serve in prison. Let the debates be about how we can transform incarcerated populations into community servants who are eager to help solve our nation’s social problems.