Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.
A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.
Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.
There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.