By Joshua Turner

When we observe the incarceration and crime crisis in our country, it’s easy to focus on the individual rather than addressing the systemic issue. I argue that crime is the result of systemic lapses and abuse through economics, it is an indicator of the failure of properly addressing scarcity, and an act of survival (the innate inclination of self preservation within all of us). If you read the first three parts of this series, you will see a repetitive cycle of how systemic lapses, systemic abuse, and systemic traumatization brings forth societal and personal ills, particularly in the Black experience. 

A Nation on Lock Down

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, what is even more egregious is the disproportionate effect mass incarceration has on Black People. This resembles the fact that when you are Black in America the scales of justice are jaded against you. It is often said that human beings have infinite value thus making it impossible to value one life over another or assign a life a particular value. However, within the status quo private prisons bid over prison contracts in essence engaging in the sale of persons. What’s even more egregious is that the 13th Amendment allows for these prisoners who are disproportionately Black to be subjected to slave labor. This institution of abuse is one that destroys the perception of one’s own self worth, much like the systemic abuses and lapses that have traumatized them and pushed them into the prison system in the first place. This begs the question of the purpose and duty of our prisons, and if they are meant to rehabilitate and correct or are they strictly meant to serve out punitive retribution that abuses and traumatizes.

(Stock Photo)

Punitive vs. Rehabilitation

Throughout history there has been a long standing debate over the purpose of prisons: are they meant to be punitive or to rehabilitate? The punitive frame seeks to punish inmates severely in such a way that deters future offenses from happening. It is a scare tactic only meant to pressure the offender into submission. This frame outlines the physical structure of the prisons, limited contact with the outside world, solitary confinement, poor living conditions, proliferation of cheap labor, the stripping of one’s identity (being referred to as a number) and the structural makeup of a cell. As previously mentioned in my last article, the environment has strong implications on development, much how this is ignored in our communities this seems to be ignored in the U.S. prison system which induces further trauma. The physical makeup of our cells are heavily based on medieval dungeons, these dungeons were used as a place of physical torture and humiliation. What is often forgotten is that the dungeons were also used to inflict psychological trauma that would break an individual. The confined space, isolation and uncertainty for long periods of time would inflict trauma. Some of these conditions have been carried over to our prisons, although there are clear adverse psychological impacts from these practices. 

“Is it self-hate that made you send me upstate? This where the so-called ‘real niggas’ sweeping up for cupcakes” – Trauma, Meek Mill

Furthermore, our prisoners are being used for cheap and in some cases slave labor according to CNN California used around 2,150 inmates to fight wildfires earning on average $2.90 per day, while taking on the same risk as professional firefighters in the outside world, sending a clear message that they as individuals are dispensable with little to no value in society. The poor conditions within our prisons are causing high rates of stress, and the spread of communicable diseases resulting in high rates of death due to illness. What is even more concerning are the higher rates of PTSD for those who have experienced incarceration than those who haven’t because “traumatic” and adverse experiences happen with more regularity these experiences include sexual assault, extreme violence and homicide. This form of PTSD caused by incarceration is vastly more complex and intricate and is now being referred to as Post Incarceration Syndrome.

“And that’s your phone time, if you ain’t got no money, you ain’t online. Hey call your son, call your daughter just to wish them more prime. Oh God, don’t let them streets get a hold of ’em” – Trauma, Meek Mill

What we also forget is the toll that our prisons system takes on the inmates’ loved ones. When someone is removed out of the family picture it upsets the structure and can induce trauma, especially for the loved ones of those who are incarcerated for decades or for life. What exacerbates this issue is the lack of communication and contact between inmates and their families. Instead of free phone calls or emails for inmates, their communication to the outside world comes at a cost.cost money that the inmates neither the families can afford. This trauma experienced by these families is on par with trauma associated with neglect, abandonment and abuse. In the case of children with incarcerated parents or close family members it exposes them to more factors making them more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system perpetuating the cycle of imprisonment. Throughout this punitive frame there is no direct action that is taking place to teach the inmates a better course of action instead there is further traumatization of those traumatized by systemic abuse. 

Conversely, the rehabilitation frame seeks to fix, repair and prepare those who have been incarcerated to become productive citizens. Like the punitive frame this frames focus is evident in the structure of their prisons and practices. Let’s take Norway, for example, unlike the U.S., their focus is on rehabilitation. Instead of the maximum sentence being life imprisonment their maximum is set at 21 years. Their “cells” are referred to as bedrooms and look as such. There are no bars, and instead, the room is made to resemble a college dorm room. Inmates are able to connect with their passions and career interest via access to music studios and a wide range of resources. The guards do not look down on the inmates and they form amicable relationships in addition to a well equipped education system that seeks to equip the inmates with tools for success in the outside world. While the U.S continues to push forward the punitive frame cutting back further on education in our prisons, although they are proven to lower recidivism.

The key difference between these two frames are their focus. The focus of the punitive frame is completely impersonal and focuses on harsh chastisement of an individual for mass deterrence, completely ignoring the problem. While the rehabilitation frame’s focus is personal, and seeks to fix the deficiencies and promote future effectiveness and functionality in society. While these frames are vastly converse they are aimed at achieving the same thing, logically it would make sense that two different focuses and methodology would produce two different outcomes, but when it comes to our prison system, logic seems irrelevant, or is it that our prison system is meant to handicap and maintain our systems of abuse and trauma in a heavily racialized institution?

Joshua Isaiah Turner is a community organizer, a developer, and a civil rights activist. He is the co-founder of Students Demand Action Baltimore, an organization against gun violence.

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