Letters from Pelican Bay


By| Tania Mejia

As a senior currently applying for graduate school, I have been putting a lot of thought into the future and what is to come. I have spent the past four years studying communication and social advocacy, with an emphasis on the prison industrial complex. But even then I am unsure whether I want to work within the system or go outside the system to bring about change. Beyond that, I keep wondering what will happen to the future of our carceral state and the countless people behind bars.

According to a 2016 Prison Policy Initiative report, “the American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” It’s evident punishment has infiltrated every aspect of society while impacting individuals, communities, and society. But as Foucault pointed out in Power/Knowledge, “In 1820 it was already understood that the prisons, far from transforming criminals into citizens, serve only to manufacture new criminals and drive existing criminals even deeper into criminality.”

Prisons as we know them were originally established as a more humane method of punishment, but since prisons have become a site of struggle where society’s already marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable populations end up. With 2.3 million people behind bars and clear racial and ethnic disparities, we need to be asking if incarceration actually produces safety.

Prisons disconnect and isolate individuals from their families, communities, and society. The impacts of such disconnection transcend past the incarcerated individual to the 1.7 million children who have at least one incarcerated parent. Having a parent behind bars can have significant impacts on children from mental health to changes in social behavior, which in turn can affect educational outcomes and lead to juvenile delinquency creating a cycle of incarceration. Further, children may feel stigma from their circumstances while experiencing financial hardships as a result of lost income and support.

What is most problematic about prisons is that we have come to believe that one institution can solve some of society’s most pressing issues from poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction. The truth is prisons cannot address everything from drug possession to serial murder, which means collectively as communities we will have to come together to figure out what works and how to find alternatives to incarceration.

Another problem with prisons is that they do not heal or address the needs of victims and perpetrators. Long prison sentences are not the solution, especially when we know prisons provide little to no rehabilitation or treatment. Prisons do not stop violence and it is reflected in the number of people sexually assaulted and raped, as well as suicide rates behind bars. Incarceration exposes people exactly to the things that increase the likelihood that they will harm others.

As I have previously written about, prisons further stigmatize and disenfranchise people through felon labels making reentry a punishment of its own. Unfortunately, our prison system has built a reputation of failing people, doing little correcting (whatever that means) and rehabilitating. If incarceration actually produced safety, we would have the safest country in the world and that’s not what we have as shown in our crime and recidivism rates.

This goes without addressing the costs behind prisons, private contracts, white collar crime, how prisons create a black market, lack of educational, mindful, and vocational programs, or racial inequalities within the criminal justice system. So, if not prisons then what? What about the murderers and rapists as I am always asked when proposing prison abolition? Well, let’s remember they only make up a small percentage of our incarcerated population, and, regardless, most will return to society.

The #cut50 movement is a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly cut our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. There are many alternatives to imprisonment from drug courts, mental courts, halfway houses, community service, treatment, public housing, and so on. Ultimately, we need radical changes in the status quo. Similarly, to Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World

“I envision a system that is grounded in community courts, reparative systems, truth and reconciliation commissions, and ‘facilities,’ insofar as absolutely necessary, which is always involving a really small number of people.”

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