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Ending Mass Incarceration: The Pitfalls of Incremental Change

Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia
Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia Photo: W. Birch and Sons / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of the conference on ending mass incarceration at Pendle Hill was focused on listening and learning about the issues, but also considering effective strategy: how to build campaigns, how to center the leadership of those formerly or currently incarcerated and their families in movements, how to do this work in a way that can have the most impact. Before we sat in reflection groups to consider action planning, Laura Magnani offered some thoughts on the risks of incremental change and a vision for what we are trying to achieve as we work the end mass incarceration and mass criminalization. – Lucy

Reform or revolution?

Michelle Alexander, when she was speaking to us at the Pendle Hill End Mass Incarceration Conference, used the “r” word – revolution.  I was glad to hear that because it announces the need for fundamental change – a paradigm shift away from the carceral/control system the U.S. has been so committed to, one could even say addicted to,  to something that could embrace the health of the whole community – not more violence and punishment.

How do we get to such a new framework? It won’t happen overnight, and very likely it will require steps that try to move us in the right direction.  The term “reform” has been used in the past, but largely discredited because it almost always means a new version of the same system – better punishment, sanitized prisons, professionalization and higher salaries for the people in enforcement positions.

Cautionary Tales

Eastern State Penitentiary cell, photo by Lucy Duncan

We need to begin with some strong cautionary tales – that is true stories from our past that need to inform our decisions for the future. Quakers are often blamed for the invention of the penitentiary. 

About half the people involved in the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (which later became the Pennsylvania Prison Society and still exists today), were Quakers. They were joined by other Protestants in what was probably the first ecumenical organization in the country.  Ecumenical in those days meant different kinds of Protestants – members of other faiths were not welcome. The organization was headed by Anglican Bishop, William White, and others of the Philadelphia elite, including Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin.

They were trying to do something “good,” more humane, whose primary purpose would be rehabilitation. They were trying to address overcrowding and abusive prison practices.

This well respected group of men retained outside oversight of the prisons. A concept which would never be allowed today. Their concept was first institutionalized at the Walnut Street Jail and then Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. And although it was a solitary confinement model, which imagined that people left alone to be “penitent” could be redeemed, it quickly deteriorated as prisons became more crowded,  more chaotic and ineffective. 

Instead of abandoning it, the advocates fought for a bigger, “better” version – indeed they became invested in their idea. They never examined the real impact, even when critics, including Charles Dickens, pronounced it a form of torture. (See American Notes by Dickens). They created a monster which was quickly duplicated in New York, Massachusetts and eventually everywhere.

This example of unintended consequences has visited us again and again as we’ve attempted to change the existing system.  In the 1970s AFSC wrote Struggle For Justice which advocated the end to the indeterminate sentence system because it was highly discriminatory and left people in prisons without any sense of how long they would be imprisoned. While the book contributed to growing sentiment against indeterminacy, it caught on just as mandatory minimums were coming into being and draconian “minimums” ended up replacing indefinite sentences with much longer fixed terms.

Today many of us are promoting “community-based programs” as a way of shrinking the prison population, only to discover that private prison corporations have swooped in to the re-entry business as a lucrative new market.

It would be hard to overstate the complexity of these issues.  There are truly no simple solutions and it is important for advocates today to emphasize that. We live in a society addicted to violence and revenge and to guide people and systems to a new set of values is no small undertaking. It is essential to keep our eyes on the big picture – to be willing to be prophetic – and to take the high road, even as convenient “reforms” are being offered.

Guidelines to consider when taking on justice issues

Eastern State Penitentiary, cell block 5, photo by Lucy Duncan

I prepared a list of Questions to consider when taking action on Justice Issues.  There are also 12 suggestions in Chapter 8 of ­Beyond Prisons:  A New Interfaith Paradigm for the Failed Prisons System, which I co-authored with the late Harmon Wray, which give people suggestions of the kind of work that moves toward dismantling the system, rather than propping it up. The suggestion is not that people try to do all of these things, but that they find where they can make a contribution to the growing movement to end mass incarceration, and indeed the control system more generally.  We came to call it “penal abolition” instead of “prison abolition” because the whole apparatus of control, repression, and violence at the street level and the prison level needs to be replaced.

In the questions to consider before taking action (and I won’t try to list them all here, though you can read them all here), let me lift up a few:

  1.  DO NO HARM. That may sound obvious, but sometimes people support longer sentences so people can receive “rehabilitation.” Others support restitution proposals, that could fall into a restorative justice plan, but not when they are added onto existing punishments.
  2. Does the proposal you are considering move in the direction of dismantling the system, or does it prop it up? Some people have criticized Alternatives to Violence Projects for making imprisonment “more palatable,” although one could also make the argument that it exposes many volunteers to prison conditions, and allows them to know people inside as human beings. Are AVP volunteers carrying that message out to the people they encounter? (It usually isn’t possible to work both inside and outside the prison system, without jeopardizing one’s ability to get inside.  However we can all work individually to spread the word about the truth we see). If your proposal is for an independent review body, will that body be fully funded, have subpoena power, and the power to implement recommendations or at least make their recommendations public?  Often these bodies give existing systems cover and legitimization without actually initiating change.
  3. When we have achieved the change we seek, how has the power shifted? For example groups fighting mandatory minimums have focused on the fact that discretion has been removed from judges and effectively lodged with district attorneys.  If we give discretion back to judges, fewer people may be sent to prison, but for the most part systems will stay in place. Advocacy might be better centered on removing mandatory minimums completely and reducing the length of sentences outright.
  4. Ask how am I using the privilege I have and do I continue to examine those choices.  Privilege comes in many forms – skin privilege, gender, education, class.  All of these can skew our view of what needs to happen. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves if the people most directly affected by the carceral state are leading the efforts and organization to which we belong.

Movement building: working at many levels

Eastern State Penitentiary cell, photo by Lucy Duncan

What seems to be essential in movement building, for example to end solitary confinement, is to work at many levels simultaneously:  legislative, administrative, legal, and by building strong alliances with those most directly affected so that voices are being raised publically as much as possible. Another way to say that is that we have to stay in the streets, keeping the issue in the media and in places where the public is increasingly aware of the problems. Because even when lawsuits are won, for instance, CDCR has decades of experience at failing to implement them. Even when bills are introduced, it may take years for them to pass all the way through the process and years longer to take effect.

What can individuals do when faced with such big problems, where the human costs are so high and there is a strong sense of urgency? We all make decisions daily about where to devote our time, energy, and dollars. Here are some thoughts about what to do:

  • None of us can do everything, or should even think we can. It requires deep discernment to discovering where each of us is being called.
  • Forgive yourself for what you can’t do.
  • Build in support systems and systems of accountability so you are getting regular feedback about what you are doing and how you are doing it.
  • Joanna Macy, the philosopher, deep ecologist, and Buddhist practitioner teaches the importance of embracing both the grief imbedded in the work we are doing – the pain and suffering, the loss, the cruelty we witness so regularly - and the importance of acknowledging the Joy of the work. Both are essential and need to be held in tension.
  • Recognize that the system we are fighting to replace is truly evil and has destroyed millions of lives and squandered our national treasury.

What we have to look forward to is that this is joyous work, work that will save lives, restore the earth, and bring us closer to the oneness of God. What I realized a few years ago is how much we can learn from the earth about how to restore ourselves to wholeness. 

Healing from hurt

For years I bought into the idea that revenge was a “natural” response to serious harm that had been perpetrated against us.  And then I opened my eyes to what a forest does when it has experienced a massive fire, or what a river does that has been poisoned by toxic chemicals.  They pour all their resources into healing and renewal – washing themselves clean, growing new sprouts. The needs we have after traumatic wrong-doing is to heal. Healing can come about through community support, through banding together, and working with the person who has caused the hurt, and the society that may have contributed to the hurt – not by causing more pain and violence or leaving survivors to fend for themselves.

I.F. Stone said: “If you expect to see results in your lifetime you are not asking a big enough question.” Shifting from violence to wholeness is a pretty big agenda, but it is one that will open doors to radical inclusiveness and enable everyone to thrive. The world will be a better place for our having been here.

Related content:

Building a nonviolent revolution against injustice: A conversation with Michelle Alexander

Questions to consider when taking action on justice issues

Love in the belly of the beast: A talk about mass incarceration by Laura at the FGC Gathering

Quakerism mandates leadership: J. Jondhi Harrell on mass incarceration

Does the Spirit drive the work? One Quaker meeting's response to mass incarceration

Healing, not harm: An interview with Lewis Webb

More Acting in Faith posts on ending mass criminalization

Addressing Prisons key issues page

About the Author

Laura Magnani served as director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program in California and has worked on criminal justice issues since 1971. She received her BA from the University of California in ethnic studies in 1971 and an MA from the Pacific School of Religion in 1982. She has worked on criminal justice issues for AFSC since 1989.