As protesters took to the streets across the nation to fight police brutality and systemic racism in the name of Black Lives Matter this year, calls for the abolishment of not only the police but the larger criminal justice system have gained momentum. The Michigan Daily spoke with currently and formerly incarcerated people about their experiences in prison and what the future of criminal justice should look like.
Parallels between slavery and the modern prison system
Dion “Bantu” Dawson, who is currently incarcerated in Macomb Correctional Facility in Michigan, has been in prison for 18 years with a sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole. He is the president of the Macomb Prison branch of the NAACP. Dawson said prisons are “designed to contain and control the Black body.”
Further, Dawson drew parallels between slavery and the prison system today, calling it a “modern-day slave plantation.”
“There is almost an identical system in place as it relates to property relations between the prisoner and the prisoner state just as it was the slave and the slave master,” Dawson said.
Dawson said there is an inherent violence in both systems, with violence so common that it has become normalized. In his time at Macomb and previously at Ionia Correctional Facility, Dawson said he’s seen fellow inmates beaten, suffocated and chained to their beds.
“Both systems naturalize the violence that they impose on their subjects,” Dawson said. “Prison staff, for example, find it almost impossible not to subject us to violence in the form of threats. They have to always instill this fear in us.”
Dawson also found similarities between the aggression he’s experienced in prison and police brutality today.
“Just like Black men and women today are being subjected to police brutality, we are very much subjected to brutality as well by the correctional officers,” Dawson said.
He also noted prison staff feel a strong allegiance to their fellow staff, which can lead to increased intimidation and violence against prisoners –– a phenomenon also seen during recent BLM protests and the trials of police officers.
The illusion of autonomy in prison
Lacino Hamilton, who was released from prison in September after being wrongly convicted of murdering his foster mother, said he had very little autonomy to make his own choices. He was incarcerated for 26 years.
“It was dehumanizing in the sense that it (prison) micromanages down to a point where there’s no necessity for thought,” Hamilton said. “Everything is pre-programmed, all decisions are stripped away.”
Another inmate at Macomb, Gregory Tyrone Alexander, who has been incarcerated for 23 years with a life sentence without parole, echoed Hamilton’s thoughts and said autonomy in prison is an illusion.
“There’s a way to make those who are being controlled believe that we are somewhat in control, and so we go about our daily existence thinking that the choices we make are solely ours, but all along there is an invisible hand who dictates our movement, even our thought process,” Alexander said.
Alexander said even his family on the outside has experienced small doses of the control the criminal justice system exerts — for example, when they call for information or when they try to send him material items for support.
“There always seemed to be a block, an obstacle, that had to be traversed,” Alexander said. “What they think to be a simple gesture of support or love was always blocked or put some type of resistance on, so as I said before, there’s a sense of control which is somewhat subtly applied to those who are constantly within the system. But for them (family on the outside), since they don’t witness it on a daily basis, when they do experience it, it’s almost shocking.”
The current movement for abolition
While there may be similarities between the carceral state and slavery, Hamilton said it is not a productive comparison and does not help modern day social justice movements gain momentum.
The prison system is violent not because of the physical violence people experience inside, but because it violently isolates inmates from their communities, according to Hamilton.
“Prison is inherently violent because it is a separation of a person from their family, their community,” Hamilton said. “That’s violent. Everything about it in that sense, so everybody in prison experiences violence.”
Alexander addressed the racism he experienced growing up in Battle Creek. At first, he said he didn’t recognize the systemic racism he faced, but his perspective changed once he was incarcerated.
“When (racism) is subtly applied, I think psychologically we have a tendency to dismiss it and almost are able to argue that it is non-existent, and that was my stance for a long time,” Alexander said. “However, when I started to be involved in the criminal justice system, which started before being imprisoned, I was able to then understand how race played a major role in the trajectory of not only myself but those who look like me and so, experience life differently than what others experience.”
Calls to abolish the police and the prison system gained traction over the summer, as opposed to previous notions of reforming the carceral state.
Dawson referred to reform as “window-dressing” and said it would not solve the problems. Abolition is the only solution, he said.
“(Abolition) isn’t just about tearing structures down, but also talking about building new structures up,” Dawson said. “So in that way, I think abolition is about imagining a new world, a more equitable world that isn’t just about caging people.”
Hamilton also expressed support of the abolition movement –– he said prisons were designed to be “inherently racist” and to make a profit, and they are achieving that goal.
“I think a lot of times when we say a system is broke, it means it’s not benefiting someone,” Hamilton said. “It’s broke, it’s not working. I think that (the prison system) only exists because it benefits someone … I think it is doing exactly what it was designed to do, regardless of the harm it does to communities.”
Alexander said, because of the stigma around being currently or formerly incarcerated, most people do not take the time to really listen to what inmates have to say, but he encouraged people to take it upon themselves to do their own research and find the “answers that are often not given freely.”
“Incarcerated women and men should not be identified by probably one of the worst mistakes they’ve ever made, which is sometimes just a bad decision, which we are often identified by,” Alexander said. “We are labeled generally, instead of individually, because we are grouped as convicted felons, and we are the group of society that no one wants to understand.”
Daily News Editor Emma Stein can be reached at email@example.com.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.