Hope Not Yet Abandoned

by Shaun Terry

Durham Protestors march in solidarity with striking prisoners, photo courtesy of Christi Fenison

We gathered at dusk in the downtown Farmer’s Market, which can seem more like a park: an open field, a concrete slab, a parking lot, all surrounded by buildings made of old-looking red brick. Much of downtown Durham looks something like you might expect an old industrial city to look. It was warm out tonight, and the moisture in the air beaded up on people’s foreheads and in little dark spots on their shirts. We were there to fight for the least among us: American prisoners.

The activist scene can be an interesting mix: eager union members, black preachers, proud LGBTQIA+, idealistic mothers, fed-up ethnic minorities, privileged hipsters, and curious university students form an unexpected coalition. If you go to one local activist event, you’ll run into many of the same people as at another, completely unrelated event, even though these activists can appear to have nothing in common.

There’s an integration problem in the South. Maybe there’s an integration problem all over, but in the South, it seems stark. I remember my surprise when I first moved to North Carolina, noting that all the blacks who worked in the restaurants seemed to work in the backs of the restaurants — not in the fronts. It’s not like that where I’m from, although where I’m from comes with its own set of problems. It is also like that in other parts of the South, though.

Conditions in American prisons are terrible. Prison is supposed to be a punishment, they say. Well, we imprison more people in America than they do in any other country on Earth, and the conditions in our prisons are far worse than prisons in so many modern societies. Many people in prison are there because they know what the deal is: if you’re not rich, then you’re getting an overworked, uninterested lawyer, and the lawyer’s going to make you take a plea deal, anyway, so you might as well get it over with. In prison, inmates are locked in cells with several strangers at a time, they eat food that’s barely food, they’re made to follow a strict schedule, they get poor health care and very few basic services, and they have very little freedom to do anything positive for themselves or for anyone else. In America, prison isn’t a rehabilitation project; it’s a capitalist project.

Police, judges, lawyers, prison guards, prison-owning corporations, and contractors for the prison all stand to make mountains of money by making sure that there’s a steady flow of inmates to these facilities, and policymakers have done a good job of presenting the situation in a light such that well-meaning people often feel that we need to lock up lots of criminals. The media are in on it, too: at last check, 90% of American media are owned by six conglomerates. Do you think that none of the board members for those companies have vested interests in these industries?

The media present a terrifying image of crime, but the system is also set up to ensure very high recidivism rates. When people leave prison, they generally don’t leave with more skills or a healthier outlook in life. Instead, their old social network has often eroded out from under them and can be replaced by a network of fellow inmates and those inmates’ associates. The former prisoners’ job prospects wither under the social stigma, the loss of job experience, and the reality of human resources policies that mean that this checked box makes hiring a no-go. But today, these problems are old.

Incarceration Rate in America

Prison incarceration (not including jail incarceration) rates collected by the Bureau of Justice

In the 1960s, much of the world watched and then followed similar paths as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War Protests ignited an activistic fire. All this activism eventually led to policies intended to de-fund our educations, but that’s a story for another day. May of 1968 saw France come about as close to revolution as you get without having to reset, and similar actions were stirred up across the globe. A lot of good came from these actions, but it’s also true that the Power Elite reacted in ways that served their interests. Ronald Reagan won the California Governorship after having said he’d “clean up that mess in Berkeley.” Nixon was so eager to appear tough on crime that he ignored a report that he’d commissioned to find out the effects of marijuana because it didn’t suit his political mission. Of course, when Reagan became President, the War on Drugs was ratcheted up as his CIA sold cocaine on Californian streets. The Clintons wouldn’t be one-upped: Bill, with Hillary’s help, passed welfare reform and oppressive laws to stiffen penalties on crimes. The results have been devastating.

Most people in prison are there for non-violent crimes, mostly relating to drug charges. Of course, marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized in most states by this point, and it’ll be on the ballot for even more states in the coming elections. Also, the fact remains that many people in jail are innocent.

Criminal Justice Reform has been a hot topic in this election cycle, and the Black Lives Matter Movement has gotten a lot of media coverage in recent years. But prisoners have been suffering all along. Before the 1970s, the Prisoners’ Rights Movement was vibrant and a lot of good was accomplished. Since then, as with so many things, those people who make decisions for our institutions have managed to commodify nearly every aspect imaginable. Much of the work in prisons is done by inmates who generally get paid far less than minimum wage, and usually have to pay for things like more desirable food, phone cards to call their families, and paper and pen with which to write. In some prisons, inmates no longer have the option of face-to-face visitations from their loved ones, instead having to pay incredibly high rates to private companies in order to use videoconferencing.

This brings us to today’s march: prisoners in at least 40 facilities in at least 24 states have gone on strike, refusing to work as something akin to chattel slaves to benefit a few rich people, after which they would be sent back into the world having to make sense of isolation and poor life prospects. Tonight, a healthy number of people gathered in Durham to show solidarity with these struggling prisoners, to support them and help to shine a light on the serious injustices which they face.

Michael Hardt, a political philosophy professor at Duke, has spoken about “the pleasures and the sort of joyful life of political struggle.” Sure, lots of activists probably act out of guilt, but on this evening, we marched through the streets of Durham, chanting, smiling, laughing, dancing, feeling that we were contributing to some greater good, hopeful that the subtle simmer that seems to bubble beneath the stale cultural mire might culminate in a boil that leads to wholesale change or something like it. We saw one another, with all our differences, and we saw friends — maybe even a kind of odd, surrogate family — who were willing to give of ourselves, willing to spend time and to act, willing to risk something and sacrifice something so that we could show that the most forgotten, most neglected among us were still humans to us and that the struggles they faced had meaning outside of those places built for punishment, those cold confines in which they had all the time they could need to mull over their most troubling questions. We stopped at the downtown jail for some time. At one point, we chanted, “We see you! We love you!” over and over and over. I hope that the prisoners could make out the message from behind the walls that separated us from them.

When I promoted this event to some friends of mine, one of them commented “If you don’t like what happens in prison, don’t go there!!!” [emphasis not mine] Surely, we’d all prefer to not be in prison, but there are other nations where prisons serve a positive function for the citizens who have to pay for them: they produce community members who can better deal with their lives and who have better skills with which to integrate themselves into society and into the labor force. In America, prison is a terrible place that leads to further horrors upon release. If only it were as simple as my friend’s suggestion.

Note: In this election cycle, we face options who are inclined to perpetuate systems that harm the vulnerable in favor of the powerful, but we can choose people who have consistently shown an interest in helping those people who are less privileged. Maybe we could benefit by leaders who show thoughtful consideration in how we treat people.