Impromptu criminal justice discussion

The other day, the Prison Education Initiative held an event to show the documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, but unfortunately, some technical difficulties kept us from actually being able to watch it. Instead, about ten of us moved to a nearby classroom and had an impromptu discussion about the criminal justice system. I’ve grown to really enjoy and appreciate happenstance discussions like this one, especially when they are with people I don’t know and on topics that I care about.

Here are some of the things we talked about that I thought were especially interesting:

  • Someone observed that the United States seems to try harder to keep prisons hidden and isolated from the rest of the population in comparison to other countries. This might not be the best comparison, but she also observed that even Auschwitz Concentration Camp was located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday town life.
  • We discussed the ethical concerns raised when architecture and design firms elect to design and build prisons. For example, how do they determine how many solitary confinement cells to build? What should the target occupancy be? What is the motivation for building more prisons in the first place?
  • It is actually cheaper to imprison inmates for life than it is to put them on death row. Two reasons why executing criminals is so costly are (1) lethal injection drugs are very expensive—not many companies are willing to sell these drugs to the US government, which means there is essentially a monopoly on the drugs—and (2) every person sentenced to death row automatically has their case appealed.
  • The Norfolk Prison Debating Society, which Malcolm X was part of back when he was incarcerated at MCI Norfolk has been revived and is very much thriving. In recent years, the prison’s debate team has competed against schools like MIT and Harvard.
  • Back in 2016, some folks at the MCI Norfolk prison held a mock election. To be quite honest, the inmates seemed way more knowledgeable and opinionated about ballot issues than I was. The results of the mock election were actually quite close to the real results in Massachusetts.
  • It was interesting to discuss how different states handle voting rights for inmates and formerly incarcerated individuals, especially because those living in states where felons lose their right to vote permanently may also lose their incentive to contribute meaningfully to society. They might feel like what they do—even outside the context of voting—does not matter because their voice will not be heard anyway.
  • When inmates are released from prison, they are not supposed to have any interactions with people they met while in prison. This includes volunteers they may have met, professors they had while in prison, and fellow inmates who have also been released. Basically, they are supposed to sever all ties with people connected to their time in prison. Even if an inmate built a support network while in prison, they have to give it all up when they leave, which is unfortunate, especially because many of them don’t have people they can turn to post-release.

Even though it was kind of sad that we weren’t able to watch the prison documentary, I’m very grateful that we were able to use that time to talk more in person about various aspects of the criminal justice system. Lots of book recommendations were thrown around, so I have some new additions to my reading list that I’m looking forward to reading!

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