Commentary

“I was totally ignorant of the criminal justice system…”

 

During the sixteen years that my son was incarcerated in various New York State prisons prior to his death in 1999, I was totally ignorant of the criminal justice system, the courts, or mass incarceration.

I never questioned why all the visitors to Attica, Auburn, Elmira, or Wende correctional facilities were mostly black or Hispanic.

Likewise, I paid little heed to my son’s constant complaints about correctional officers (COs), his lawyers, or his sentences. After all, I reasoned, he had done the crime so he should just “do the time.”

Many times he was angry or frustrated over seemingly minor occurrences like not getting a package or receiving money for commissary.

Looking back, I wonder if the periods spent in “The Bing” (often a month or more) harmed his mental and emotional health. (I’ve since learned the psychological damage that prolonged isolation can have on the mind, even for those not suffering with mental illness.)

Despite his verbal bravado and willingness to buck the system–by filing suit against the New York City Commissioner of Corrections, the NYC Department of Correction, and several COs for an alleged assault at Rikers Island jail–he was deferential, almost fearful, whenever a CO approached our table during prison visits.

When angered by the failure of family or girlfriends to visit, he would tell me “you are out there, so you don’t know what it’s like in here.”

I would respond that those of us “out here” were prisoners, too, but of institutional racism.

I regret my lack of understanding now.

My research over the past two years (in preparation for my weekly podcast, “One Mother’s Voice,” has revealed the sorry state of the criminal justice system.

What I learned about the treatment of juveniles, women, persons with mental illness, and people of color, who form the majority of those swelling America’s jails and prisons, transformed me into a strong advocate for changing how we treat those negatively affected by harsh, regressive criminal justice policies and practices. Frankly, that includes all of us.

If you don’t have an incarcerated family member, give thanks, and if you ever end up in jail or prison, pray that someone on the outside gives a damn.

 

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