The Truth About Prisons – –

Posted: April 6, 2021 at 1:50 am

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Mary Fish does not deserve to die in prison. It will not benefit her or anyone else. On the contrary, making the sixty-eight-year-old Native American woman finish out the eight remaining years of her 2002 sentence at a state prison in Oklahoma will rob her of the chance shes earned to contribute positively to society.

Law, in her issue-by-issue approach, writes about the invisibility of incarcerated women and trans people, even as the rate of incarceration for women has grown since 1980 at twice the rate of men.

Fish, whose story was told in the December/January issue of The Progressive by freelance writer Victoria Law, has stopped using drugs and alcohol and taken part in self-help groups and other prison programs. Her health history includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, all of which put her at a higher risk from COVID-19. Shes a little old lady, for crying out loud.

Yet, even if the current push to reform the nations prison system advances, Fish may not see a reprieve. Thats because Fish, like nearly half the 1.5 million people in U.S. state and federal prisons, has committed violent offenses, which in her case tied back to her abuse of drugs and alcohol. And this, writes Law in her ironically titled new book, Prisons Make Us Safer, leaves her excluded from the narrative that mass incarceration is driven by nonviolent drug offenses, which in fact make up just 22 percent of the whole. She urges policymakers to move past pronouncements about nonviolent drug offenders to include the more complicated and nuanced scenarios involving violence.

Law also torpedoes the demonstrably false beliefs that prisons promote rehabilitation; that the threat of incarceration serves as a deterrent; that stiff sentences reduce the incidence of murder and sexual assault; that smaller prison populations mean higher crime rates; and that publishing the names of sex offenders on public registries enhances public safety.

The author of an earlier book titled Resistance Behind Bars, Law goes after prison myths on principle, even challenging commonly held assumptions such as seeing privately run prisons and immigration detention centers as a main driver of mass incarceration. In reality, she writes, privately run prisons incarcerate [only] between 8 and 8.5 percent of the U.S. prison population.

Law, in her issue-by-issue approach, writes about the invisibility of incarcerated women and trans people, even as the rate of incarceration for women has grown since 1980 at twice the rate of men. She recounts how policing and imprisonment became tools for incapacitating communities before they could organize and demand social change. She stresses the role of race in mass incarceration, including that all but eleven of the more than 2,000 people federally charged for crack cocaine over a three-year period were Black, and none were white. She points out that the tortuous conditions within jails and prisons often exacerbateif not causemental health issues.

Worst of all, Law argues, mass incarceration robs victims as well as offenders of approaches that can help bring closure and a start to reconciliation. Instead of encouraging offenders to take responsibility, prisons simply act as warehouses, removing people from societyand from any chance of trying to make amends.

Law identifies better approaches, from education programs that cut recidivism rates almost in half, to deferment programs for young offenders like the Common Justice initiative established in New York City in 2008, to restorative justice programs, to calls for the abolition of prison altogether.

The problem with prison policy isnt that we dont know what works and what doesnt but that people who have other agendas dont care. As Law puts it, The criminal legal system isnt broken. Its functioning as intendedas a form of surveillance, control, and punishment and as a way to conceal rather than address societys problems.

This urgent and useful book makes a compelling case for making a break from that past.

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April 6th, 2021 at 1:50 am

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