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Letters from Pelican Bay

By| Tania Mejia

By now, most of us know there are 2.3 million people behind bars, and that the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population while housing 25% of the world’s prison population. Unlike other political topics, there seems to be bipartisan agreement that our criminal justice system is an urgent need of reform. Unfortunately, most of these cries for change are happening as a result of the $80 billion price tag, instead about the peoples lives who have been and are being impacted by this system. 

Our society seems to be unable to forgive people and it manifests in the way we treat people behind bars and upon their release. In his, “Re-humanizing Inmates” TEDx talk, inmate, Anthony Wyatt states, “As prisoners, we’re automatically presumed to be less than civilized, and so less than equal. Less than equal, and so less than worthy. A segment of the population, undeserving of your respect, and basic human rights cause we’re considered less than human. I know it sounds extreme, but how else can we account for society’s clear lack of concern for the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated lives?”

I have repeatedly came to the same conclusion as I read letters by my prison pen pals, walkthrough prisons, and talk to formerly incarcerated people. It is hard not to wonder how did we get here at the approval of so many people. Of course, politicians “tough on crime” rhetoric, media portrayals, and people’s fears were a driving force, but more than that, I think it became an us vs. them. It is no secret that our criminal justice system disproportionately locks up people of color and people who are poor, yet many of us keep the system out of sight, out of mind while falling into the false narrative of who these men and womyn are. I think society as a whole has negatively dehumanized and desensitized our incarcerated brothers and sisters that many people simply do not care about their conditions, rights, and treatment behind bars. 

As mass incarceration begins to scale down, which it will, we have begin a re-humanization process of inmates and prisoners. It is simply not enough to release people behind bars back into society when being labeled a felon puts you in a category, which Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, identifies as a racial caste system equivalent to slavery and Jim Crow. Being labeled a felon carries consequences with it, which make reentry into society a punishment of its own. People with a criminal record can’t receive financial aid, can’t apply for food stamps and welfare, can’t apply for business loans, can’t earn some professional licenses/permits, can’t apply for public housing, can’t own guns, can’t vote, can’t sit on a jury, can’t apply for some jobs, and if, they are able to they face the “Have you been convicted of a felony?” question on job applications. 

So how do we begin this rehumanization process? We have to begin by challenging our own beliefs and attitudes. Ask yourself, what images come to mind when you hear the words criminal, felon, inmate, prisoner, or convict? We have to stop making prison jokes such as “don’t drop the soap,” which as Anthony points out in his TEDx talk, “since when is the rape or assault of any fellow human being funny?” We have to stop supporting TV programs who profit from the violence in jails and prisons. We have to stop calling people behind bars by the labels given to them by the oppressor (e.g. inmate, prisoner, felon, convict, criminal). We have to bridge gaps between the inside and outside world. 

Most importantly, we have to support them. We know 90-95% of people behind bars are someday returning to society. It’s time to let go of assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. 

Poem by Marcus Armstrong

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