Of course I experienced the same emotions the rest of us did during the Amber Guyger mess this past week. Shock, at first, that she was convicted, not just of any crime but of murder! And then resigned acceptance she will be out of prison at about age 40, depending on good behavior etc.
In this world we currently live in, prison is a fact. It is a fact in every “developed” nation. Regardless of your feelings on the system and the institution, there is no magic wand that will make it disappear tomorrow. So in this system that we have right now, it feels wrong for Guyger to receive such a light sentence. I’ll come back to her, though.
I’ve grappled with the idea of fully embracing prison abolition as an ideology for a long time. It always made some sense to me, but I had that externally-imposed idea in my head: what about the really bad ones? I watch a lot of serial killer documentaries (I just wonder how people work, I guess), and I think to myself, but BTK? Ted Bundy? When they’re caught, we should let them go? There is nothing that will fix them. What of the people like the current president, who have transgressed against countless victims? We let him go? (Probably we will, but you get my point.) Shouldn’t a Cosby or a Weinstein be in jail?
A lot of the arguments for abolition have left me cold. I have read a fair amount of summaries that bring up all of the oppressive criminality by system actors and others in power (warmongering, etc). This is very true but in my opinion, rather besides the point. I am not enough of a moral scholar to make that type of complex argument. To me, the simplest argument for why prison is a societal failure is that it doesn’t work.
What is prison for?
It doesn’t work as a preventative deterrent. It doesn’t successfully rehabilitate. It doesn’t “even the scale.”
If prison were actually correcting wrongs, and all those with power were being punished for their exploitation, it might make more sense. But again, the way to resolve that is to change society overall, not to make ourselves feel better through a fault stopgap bandaid. Most people in prison are people who have been denied an equitable life and are acting out accordingly. The handful of people outside of this group, especially the men, need to learn it’s okay to seek treatment before harming others. And then the very small group of people who are in neither of these groups, well… if we found a way to make it so we were actively treating and supporting those who would otherwise harm others, and we were left with a very small pool of Ted Bundy types, it would be much, much easier to address them. I don’t actually have to have a perfect solution for what to do with every violent person with antisocial personality disorder to say I think prisons are ultimately a bad idea, even if it might be satisfying to watch the people in this adminstration get perp walked. But that’s it, right? Should we be acting based upon catharsis and perceived satisfaction, or a larger, more discomfiting version of justice? I understand if folks disagree, and I always did, but I don’t anymore.
I know in reading this you may run to the logical conclusion, that we’ll be letting every serial killer run free with no consequence. Resist that emotional temptation. The point is to create a society where the people who would otherwise commit crimes receive intervention, support, and treatment before the inflection point, and the very small number of people who are both treatment resistant and also not victims of abuse or other forms of oppression will be much easier to deal with without all of the others as an obstacle. Frankly, it’s clear to me that the violent outliers have a much easier time doing what they do because we spend so much time on people who are just struggling and lacking in support and/or capacity.
Back to Amber. In a just world, she’s taught by anti-racist teachers from childhood, she learns full empathy for other groups, and she isn’t trained to shoot first when “scared.” We live in an unjust world, so, emotionally, it is contextually fair she is held somewhat accountable for her actions, although I am coming to believe it is not “good” to add more people to prisons. Contextually fair, though, in that her oppressive racism is deserving of a response, and a longer sentence would have thus been appropriate as well. (Note: I don’t begrudge the family any of their reactions.)
These discussions are hypothetical anyway, because little will change the power and prominence of prison anytime soon. Like most black people, I’ve known and been related to people who have served time, for things both big and small, and I don’t say this as some pure soul of unblemished character. But the only thing prison is good for is punishment, for reifying the power and hegemony of the few (all of us reading this included). It doesn’t actually make us safer, so long as our current power structures remain in place to endanger all of us. And if we changed all of this, we could focus on the true outliers. This is my view as it stands right now.
Prison won’t go away in any of our lifetimes, yet I felt it necessary to be clear on my perspective.
Hopefully this goes over well!