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As we reimagine—and fight for—the anti-racist, democratic, equitable world we want to live in, it's imperative that we learn from the leaders who've been doing this work all along. In ELLE.com's series Just Three Things, we'll be interviewing activists about the three things they wish more people knew about their area of expertise. Here, Victoria Law, freelance journalist and author of the new book "Prisons Make Us Safer": And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration, shares three things she wishes more people knew about mass incarceration.
1. Prisons don’t actually make us safer.
We have to remember that arrest and imprisonment happen after harm or violence has occurred; it doesn't prevent it from happening. People are not deterred from committing harm or committing violence because prisons exist. The United States has five percent of the world's population, but it has between 20 to 25 percent of the world's prison population. So if prisons made us safer, we would be the safest nation in the world, and that is not the case. According to the Department of Justice’s own statistics, over half of violent crimes go unreported. Of those that are reported, fewer than half actually lead to an arrest. So even then, prisons don't necessarily address violence after it happens.
2. Prisons don’t keep us safe from rape or sexual violence.
There's a myth that we need prisons to keep us safe from rape and sexual violence, but as I said before, prison happens after harm or violence occurs, not before. And just like violent crimes oftentimes go unreported, there's even less reporting of sexual assault and sexual violence. For every 1,000 instances of sexual assault in the U.S., only 230 are reported to the police and only 46 lead to arrest. Of those, nine are actually referred to prosecutors and five result in a conviction. Less than five of those convictions results in prison time. We see that prisons are not a deterrent for rape; fear of prison didn’t stop high profile, rich men like Harvey Weinstein from committing serial sexual assault.
If harm happens, we need to focus on what the survivor needs, rather than this punitive system. The survivor might say, "I want to be sure that this person is never going to rape or sexually assault anyone again." But they also might say, "I now have a fear of going out at night, but I work a job that requires me to be out after dark." What are the resources and supports they need to be able to start to heal? It's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. Locking somebody up might temporarily remove that person from their immediate vicinity, but it doesn't provide a sense of safety when they are walking down the street. It doesn't ensure that the next person they meet is not also going to be a potential danger to them.
3. Prisons mimic the abuse that people experience at home.
We don't often think about the high rates of physical and sexual violence that people in women's jails and prisons experience before their arrest and incarceration. Of people in women's jails and prisons, 77 percent experienced domestic violence before their arrest and 86 percent of women in prison experienced sexual violence before their arrest. We should be asking ourselves: Why is abuse so prevalent, and how does this push women into a pathway to imprisonment?
Women's jails and prisons also reinforce those mechanisms of abuse. In abusive relationships, you’re told when you're allowed to get up, to eat, to pee, if you can see your friends and, if so, when and under what circumstances. All of these things are replicated as part of the way prisons work. We also have to remember that prisons are rife with sexual violence, even if the person is never sexually abused or assaulted. For instance, anytime a guard feels like it, they can order somebody to be frisked over their clothes. Imagine being in an environment where somebody can just tell you they're going to touch you as part of a security protocol. People are strip searched before and after visits, so for many women, this forces them to choose between enduring invasive and re-traumatizing humiliation or not seeing their families. As we have all noticed in the pandemic, we really need to hold our loved ones or look in their eyes in order to thrive in this society.
And one more thing: If we think prisons make us safer, we need to ask, safety for whom and from what?
Prisons are places that are violent and chaotic. For people who committed sexual violence, they're not going to find any way to account for their harm in prison. Instead, they now have even fewer resources and fewer people to hold them accountable because they've been snatched away from whatever support they had. At the same time, the person they harmed hasn't necessarily been given any tools to help them cope.
We also have to remember that laws are very specific. People who are dealing drugs on the street are targeted by law enforcement, but we don't target the Sackler family for the opioid crisis. That becomes a lawsuit about money and restitution, but it's not seen as a crime. Flint not having drinkable water for its residents is not seen as a crime. Even if you imprisoned the players responsible for the Flint water disaster, it would not bring safe drinking water to that city. It would just drain more resources. We need to be open to saying, even if we don't know for sure if another system will definitely eradicate all harm, we can see that policing and prisons aren't eradicating all harm and, in many cases, are adding to it. We need to build up the resources in communities that we need to keep us safe, not just look to an outside institution.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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