In a comment made on one of my recent posts, a former student of mine expressed her dismay at the conditions prisoners face. She asked what we can do to protest or change the fact that many Texas prisoners are not being served lunch on the weekends. I stare this question in the face every day and seldom have a satisfactory answer.
I have spoken with my father since I wrote the aforementioned blog post and now know that he still gets to eat lunch on the weekends. He believes that most of the folks being denied weekend lunch in Texas are in the county jail system, and I suspect that he is correct. Like those of us on the outside, prisoners hear a lot of rumors, partial truths, and outright lies about what is happening in the criminal justice system, so it’s often difficult for me to make assertions with certainty about policies and procedures that effect my family’s daily life. One seldom knows whether what we experience is due to actual policy and what occurs because of the arbitrary will of wardens, guards, or other prison administrators. When we ask for explanations of the rules, often we receive no satisfactory answers.
When I learned that my father and the other men on his unit still receive lunch on the weekends, I immediately felt relief and then concern for those less fortunate prisoners who are now missing two meals each week. The problem has not changed. It just doesn’t happen to directly affect my father, yet.
My student’s question remains: what can we do? As with all forms of activism, there are no direct answers for those of us who seek a more humane way to respond to crime and make our society safer. The biggest stumbling block, especially for those of us who have loved ones in prison, is the fact that prisoners live hidden from view in a completely controlled space. Humanitarian and watchdog groups can only gain access to as much of the prison as those who run it allow them to see. Even if prisoners have a means by which to communicate truthfully with the outside world (and this is often not the case), whatever they say has the potential to incur retaliation from those who hold them captive. Our actions in the outside world can also cause retaliation against prisoners. If activists or family members agitate too much or in the wrong way, prisoners–not those of us on the outside–will suffer the consequences.
Prisoners have so little personal property and such limited control over their daily lives that it is very easy for a malicious, or even a careless, person working in the prison to severely diminish a prisoner’s quality of life. For instance, prisoners are subjected to periodic searches of their bodies, living spaces, and personal property. In most prison systems prisoners must endure a full strip search before and after each visit with a person from the outside world. For women, this frequently involves having to pull apart one’s labia and display one’s vagina for inspection. As we can imagine, it would be very easy for a guard to make this process even more humiliating or physically painful with little effort, by conducting the strip search slowly, commenting on the physical appearance of the prisoner, or engaging in touching not necessary for the search. These are all difficult offenses to document, and a prisoner’s complaint about inappropriate treatment during a search would likely result in the weighing of a prisoner’s testimony against a guard’s. A prisoner registering such a complaint through official channels would again expose her/himself to the possibility of retaliation. The cycle is difficult to break. Most prisoners who have told me such stories felt compelled to remain silent and pray that the abuse did not continue.
Another difficulty involved in prison activism has to do with how cut off prisoners remain from free world advocates. Prisoners know much better than those of us outside what needs to be done to improve the quality of their lives, but activists often take it upon themselves to decide what prisoners need and how we should go about getting it. Any activist work done on behalf of prisoners should involve the incarcerated to the greatest extent possible. That said, communication barriers and questions of access remain.
Though prison activism is exceedingly difficult, it is not impossible. Organizations like Critical Resistance and web forums like the Prison Activist Resource Center have helped many people to get involved in various particular struggles related to injustice in the prison industrial complex. Many much smaller grassroots organizations do excellent work in one small sector, like helping bus children to prisons to visit their parents. These people do extraordinary work that immeasurably improves the quality of life for prisoners and their families. This work is vital, and we need it to spread and grow.
After joining in many campaigns to change unjust laws or protest specific injustices, I see the necessity of this work but feel that the majority of what I personally can do to respond to this international crisis of mass incarceration must take place in a cultural realm. Though we need protests and specific political actions, I am fundamentally convinced that we have to have a cultural revolution if this madness is ever going to stop. We need to be talking about the humanity of prisoners and the conditions of their lives as much and as publicly as possible. We need to counteract the falsehoods perpetuated by politicians running on get-tough-on-crime platforms and the inflated terror that media outlets use to get us to consume their products. We need not only good research on what’s actually happening inside prisons but people who can help translate academic studies into forms that more people will hear, read, see, and understand. We need to engage the public and find ways to have honest dialogue that do not frighten people away. We need more art, literature, poetry, theatre, blogs, and music that provide a realistic picture of what prisons do to all of us. We need to step away from depictions of prisoners as either inhuman monsters to be perpetually feared or glorified gangsters admired for their ruthlessness and materialism. We must begin to break down the entrenched righteousness that a great many people feel about how just a people we are, how we are suited to judge others without even knowing the circumstances of their charges or incarceration.
The simplest thing we can do is to question the representations of prisoners we see every day and to interrogate our assumptions about who we think those people are. Talk to the people around you about casual remarks they make about prisoners. Do not laugh at jokes about prisoners being sexually assaulted; notice how common these are. Speak up when you hear falsehoods. Read; be well informed about prisoners’ struggles and the things that happen to their families. Serve on juries when you have the chance; do not assume that people are guilty just because they have been charged. Do not be complacent about the injustices around you; do not shut them out of your thoughts just because your life would be easier if you did not face the suffering of others. Take opportunities to help when they present themselves; create them when you can. Never stop asking, “What can we do?”