An Open Letter from Donna Roberts

An Open Letter to the Members of Prison Renaissance from Donna Roberts

 

Let me start by confirming some of the things you may already be thinking.
I am not male.
I am not Black or Hispanic. I have never been openly discriminated against because of my race or religion. I have never been racially profiled.
I have never been incarcerated.
I have never been arrested or detained.
I have never been in a gang.
I have never taken illegal drugs. I have never even taken a drag on a cigarette.
No one in my family came home drunk and angry or forgot to feed me because they were high.
I always had clean clothes and a comfortable home.
I grew up in a nice neighborhood. We rode bikes, swam in swimming pools, played Monopoly.
I was not afraid.
I was not abused.
I have never gone hungry.
I have never experienced physical violence.
I have never witnessed a loved one experience physical violence.

I am not you.
I have not seen the things you have seen.
I have not walked a mile, or even a step, in your shoes.
In fact, in dozens of ways I am probably the opposite of you.
In short, I am a privileged white girl from a good neighborhood.

So, what can I possibly have to say to you?
I can say that despite all our differences, despite that we are worlds apart, we can come together for a common cause.
Many of you are familiar with Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Before the experiment Phil was just another faculty member trying to teach students and conduct the research required of faculty. So he set up a simple experiment. He had no idea what he was about to stumble upon. But what he found was so profound that he spent the rest of his career – the rest of his life actually – working with some aspect of it.

Before I “stumbled upon” Prison Renaissance, before I “met” Camille and Emile I used to think, “I need to find my Zimbardo.”

I was well-read and interested in many diverse areas of psychology. But I needed to find focus and meaning and something worth dedicating the rest of my career to.

Before, I didn’t talk or write about anything political or controversial. I didn’t write about my opinions.

But, when confronted with the issues related to prison reform I remembered what I used to tell the adolescents in the CHOICES juvenile diversion program I co-created. I used to quote a country western song (I know, a questionable source, but bear with me). I used to say, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re gonna fall for anything.”

Those words came back to me as I read the mission and goals of Prison Renaissance. I knew it was time for me to stand for something.

Before, I had only a vague idea about prison overcrowding and racial disparity in prison populations. If you’d asked me if America’s prisons were overcrowded, I would have said, “Well, yeah, I think some of them probably are.”

I didn’t know that taken as a whole, the population of those in prison and jail would constitute the fourth largest city in America (Source: Prison Policy Initiative / U.S. Census Bureau).

I didn’t know that in 17 states, prisons are filled beyond capacity with the highest reaching 196%.

I didn’t know that because of overcrowding prisoners routinely died due to medical neglect.

I didn’t know that the U.S. imprisons black men at almost five times the rate that South Africa did during apartheid.

I didn’t know that more black adults are incarcerated by the correctional system today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than under slavery in 1850 (Sources: Prison Policy Initiative; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

If you’d asked me if recidivism was a problem, I would have said, “Yeah, I think the rates are probably too high.”

I didn’t know that over two thirds of people who leave prison will return – 68% within 3 years and 77% within 5 years (U.S. Bureau of Justice).

If you’d asked me about the increase in prison population, I’d have assumed that it had risen somewhat over the last decades.

I didn’t know that the huge drop in the crime rate since 1990 did not slow the pace of mass incarceration.

I didn’t know that the prison population had increased 400% since the Reagan presidency.

I didn’t know that the U.S. has the largest incarceration system in the world – that despite comprising only 5% of the world population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoner population (Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; The Sentencing Project).

If you asked me about “enhancements”, I’d have thought you meant the added features in the latest software update.

I didn’t know about California’s system of sentence enhancements, whereby tens of thousands serve time in prison substantially longer than the sentence for their original crime (Source: NBC News).

If you’d asked me if mental illness was a problem in prisons, I’d have replied that, “Rates of mental illness among prisoners are probably slightly above those of the general population.”

I didn’t know that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons have some form of mental illness (Source: Urban Institute Report).

If you’d asked me if drugs were a problem in prisons, I’d have surmised that the drug problem was probably tightly controlled, with some exceptions.

I didn’t know that 65% of the nation’s inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction, but only 11% receive treatment (Source: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse).

I didn’t know.

But now I do know.

So I think it’s time to stand for something. And that something is prison reform.

So what can I say to you that might have meaning?

I can say that despite all the layers of our differences I see very clearly that what society is doing with regard to the treatment of prisoners is not working.
And it’s not been working long enough that it’s time to look for alternative ways of doing things.

Thank you, Prison Renaissance, for helping me find my Zimbardo. I hope together we can foster change.