It was a little over three weeks ago that Marlo entered Atwood Hall, here in Lexington federal prison. Nearly all the women here are nonviolent offenders. When I first saw Marlo, her eyes seemed glued to the tiled floors as she shuffled along hallways. I guessed her age to be twenty-five or so.
A few days later, she came to a choir rehearsal. She was still shy, but she looked up and offered a quiet smile when she joined the soprano section. The next time our choir gathered, Marlo raised her hand before we ended our rehearsal.
“I got something to say,” she said. “When I first came here, I can tell all of you now, I was terrified. Just plain terrified. I have seventy months, and I felt so scared.”
Her introduction to the prison system had badly frightened her, but before sundown that same day, something else had occurred, with several inmates finding her, reassuring her, and getting her beyond that first panic.
During my four stints in U.S. federal prisons, I’ve witnessed the unconquerable human response of long-term inmates when a newcomer arrives. An unscripted choreography occurs, and the new prisoner finds that other women will help her through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years. Halfway through a three-month sentence myself, I'm saddened to realize that I'll very likely adapt to an outside world for which these women, and prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system, are often completely invisible.
U.S. state and federal prison populations have risen, since 1988, from 600,000 to an estimated 1,600,000 in 2012. This trend shows inhumane behavior on the part of lawmakers and myriad employees who benefit from the so-called “criminal justice” system. But our entire society bears responsibility for what now can aptly be labeled a prison-industrial complex. Constructing prisons and filling prisons with people who posed little or no threat to our security didn't happen clandestinely, without our consent. We watched, mesmerized perhaps, and allowed ourselves to become a country with the world's largest prison system.
A friend from home recently sent me encouraging news of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner's initiative to address the problems in some of this country’s most brutally overcrowded prisons. A Chicago Tribune article from several weeks ago notes that Rauner plans to reduce the state's prison population by 25 percent over the next ten years, establishing the reduction as a goal through executive order. The article, by columnist Eric Zorn, cites a widely cited recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice that “nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent offenses like traffic, property, drugs, or public order violations.”
Skyrocketing costs of incarceration have finally convinced some lawmakers to work toward “reducing prison populations.” I recently read a long report about how the California Department of Corrections has responded to a court-ordered demand that the state reduce the numbers of people locked up in California state prisons. The order was first issued in 2009 by a three-judge panel. The state appealed the order, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it, ordering the state of California to comply by 2013. The California government sought and was granted two extensions. As of now, the order insists that California must reduce its prison population, by 2016, to “no more than 137.5 percent of the design capacity” of its state prisons.
Whatever plans Rauner’s committee proposes for Illinois, the notoriously incarceration-minded Illinois state legislature is likely to put up just as vigorous a fight. Meanwhile the California report discusses “cost-effective measures,” “recidivism reduction results,” “rehabilitative programming,” and “programming slots” at “in-state contract facilities.” The language, highly impersonal, suggests warehousing. I wonder if zookeepers might be more attentive to the individuality of the beings they cage.
Trapped in a cruel and uncaring system, women here in Atwood Hall reliably find humane ways to cope. Among many signs of daily generosity, one of my favorites is the practice of “window shopping.” Women place extra items they can spare in the window sills nearest the stairwells. A new prisoner can find new fresh socks, a warm knit cap, books, magazines, pitchers—items that quickly disappear and are soon replenished.
Perhaps we'll begin to see a trend toward finding humane ways to cope with seemingly intractable problems in today's criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court's insistence that the State of California must release many thousands of prisoners signals a trend in which, as Rauner's order recognizes, “States across the country have enacted bipartisan, data-driven, and evidence-based reforms that have reduced the use of incarceration and its costs while protecting and improving public safety.” Zorn notes that the MacArthur Foundation recently granted $75 million for a five-year “Safety and Justice Challenge” meant "to reduce overincarceration by changing the way America thinks about its prisons and jails."
I can’t imagine a figure too high to pay to effectively challenge the way U.S. people think about safety and justice.
I'm here among women, some of whom, I've been told, are supposed to be “hardened criminals.” Fellow activists incarcerated in men's prisons concur that the system is futile, merciless and wrongheaded. Our jailers, I’m convinced, can see this. Men like Governor Rauner, it seems, can see it, or at least his advisers can.
Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, is in federal prison for participation in an anti-drone protest. She can receive mail at: KATHY KELLY 04971-045; FMC LEXINGTON; FEDERAL MEDICAL CENTER; SATELLITE CAMP; P.O. BOX 14525; LEXINGTON, KY 40512.
Image credit: AsylumProjects.org