A world without prisons has little to do with the physical absence of cages or cuffs. That world is founded on humility and acknowledges the fact that, controlling for luck and privilege, any one of us could be in prison for the things we’ve done or been complicit in, yet have never been held accountable for. Many of us seem to believe that if we just keep pointing to the actions of others, we can keep ourselves from having to confront our own sources of shame.
The most intimate thing every American can do to end mass incarceration is to reckon with themselves, with their own sources of shame and hypocrisy. From this place of humility, we can stop pretending that so-called criminal justice asks what to do about people who cause harm and get honest about the debate we’re actually having: what to do about the relatively few among us who get caught. Maybe then we’ll stop asking what those people owe us and start thinking about what we, the lucky ones, owe them.
Before I was locked up, I didn’t know how my mom or anyone else in my family felt about the criminal legal system. Even while I was inside, we only discussed it in the context of my own situation. This activity invites readers to engage a family member or friend in an honest discussion about our current system. It’s intended for those interested in the uncomfortable space wherein we shake loose old judgments by admitting our own faults.
Find a family member or close friend, someone with whom you’ve never discussed the criminal legal system. Ideally you would engage with someone whose feelings on the system are unknown to you.
Spend five minutes separately reflecting on some of the things in your life that you most regret doing or not doing, saying or not saying. Make notes for yourself or free-write about what memories and emotions come up for you. This is a highly subjective exercise and isn’t merely a search for anything illegal in your past. Instead, search for the things that you feel have pushed you farther away from other people than you ever wanted to be. Not all of these have to be actions; they can include things you didn’t do, even a passing wish made in anger.
While reflecting, consider:
- What did you need in order to thrive during the times in your life when these things took place? Did you deserve the things you needed? Why or why not? Do others deserve/not deserve those same things?
- What exactly does it mean to “deserve” something, anyway?
Having primed yourself in this way, start a conversation about our criminal legal system with your partner.
Share your thoughts on our criminal legal system and ask for theirs: how well each of you feel it works, whether it imprisons the right people for the right reasons, and whether either of you can imagine any viable alternatives.
Continue to share honestly and listen deeply. Resist any urge to try and change your conversation partner’s mind. When in doubt, come back to yourself and your emotional experience of the thought exercise. If serious disagreement occurs, take a few more minutes for silent reflection, then begin the conversation again.
Do either of you believe that whether someone has committed a crime is the defining difference between those who are free and those who are imprisoned? (In other words: is every person who commits a crime prosecuted?) If not, what do you think are the metrics being used to make decisions about whom to imprison?
- A narrative of these difficult parts of your life was required of you by your school, employer, landlord, and anyone you met who got curious enough to ask.
- Any hesitation or unwillingness on your part to share your story was seen as defiance and a sign that you lack remorse.
- These events defined you in the eyes of both strangers and certain loved ones for the rest of your life.
Consider how that redefinition of your identity would change how you move through the world. Is that what you deserve? If not, who does deserve that? How are they different from you?
Drawing from the thought exercise you’ve just completed, describe your sense of how and why you’ve been able to avoid the criminal legal system — or why you haven’t been able to, if that’s the case. If you’re comfortable doing so, share with your conversation partner some details of or insights from your experience of the thought exercise. Switch roles.
With your partner, write a one-paragraph shared reflection of your experience with the exercise. What’s something you understand better now than before? What’s something either or both of you will keep thinking about? Draw from your notes from your individual reflections. What’s changed since you wrote those notes?
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Michael H. Brownstein