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Why now is the time to change the U.S. prison system

Two people embrace, leaning on each other
Illustration: AFSC/Emily Cohane-Mann Photo: AFSC

By Laura Magnani, director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program in California

Preventing harm

Punishment has been popular in Anglo-European cultures, as in many others, since before biblical times. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that our culture justifies virtually any amount of violence toward those perceived as “perpetrators.”

In U.S. prisons, what begins with a relatively benign mandate to separate convicted people from the rest of us quickly spirals into harsher and harsher forms of isolation, deprivation, and cruelty. What’s more, this cruelty is not administered evenly; at every level of the system, from arrest to trial to sentencing, racism results in much longer and harsher sentences for people of color.

The problem is not only that “justice” is administered unjustly. It’s that people cannot become kinder and gentler, more capable of holding down a job and maintaining family relationships, when they are not offered meaningful education or job training and are isolated, exposed to further violence, and deprived of self-respect for years at a time.

Structured to heal

In AFSC’s comprehensive analysis of prison issues, “Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm of Our Failed Prison System,” that I co-wrote with Harmon L. Wray, we quote the philosopher Kathleen Deane Moore, who points out that meeting evil with evil simply makes us evil-doers ourselves. It is a myth, she writes, that revenge is the only natural response to violence. Look at how a forest recovers from a traumatic forest fire—or how a stream heals from toxics that have been poured into it. Nature is organized to heal itself.

When we organize ourselves for healing justice, we stop focusing on legally defined wrongs and punishments that often contribute to recidivism, and instead look for ways to facilitate healing and transformation for all involved.

It’s a new paradigm, and one that AFSC is successfully modeling in partnerships like those in Maryland (see "Mentorship leads incarcerated men  to leave violence behind"), Maine, and Burundi (see "Communities begin to heal through storytelling").

Another example is “Women Healing from Violence,” the classes we host in the federal women’s prison and the Santa Cruz County jail in California. Because those who have been convicted of crimes also carry their own histories as survivors of abuse and neglect, the program weaves these realities together. (Learn more about these women in a recent blog post, "The power to create light: Healing in Dublin Federal Women’s Prison.")

True justice

Momentum is growing for change. Courageous prisoners who have gone on hunger strike to protest the cruelty of long-term isolation have caught the attention of mainstream media. Racial disparities in the system are being exposed. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court required California to reduce its prison population in order to provide constitutional levels of health care and mental health care. Eight other states have reduced their prison population, and more jurisdictions are abolishing the death penalty.

AFSC has been central to these struggles for decades. We celebrate this progress and at the same time know that it is not enough.

Now is the time to push for a real overhaul of the system; not only because humane approaches are less expensive and more effective, but because justice is best served by helping people heal and preventing further harm.