Out of sight, out of mind

Saturday, September 12, 2020 - 10:33am

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The current social unrest over police misconduct and growing calls to “defund the police” have prompted the rethinking of our criminal justice system by many who previously paid it little mind. This is best exemplified in the sudden presence of the prison abolition movement in the American public consciousness — even Vanity Fair and Vogue are writing about it. Many are shocked to hear of the movement, but unless you are in a very secure position socially, this sort of mass upheaval is in your best interest.

It’s no secret that our criminal justice system weighs heavier on Black people than others. The civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights movements are both inextricably linked to these groups’ abuse at the hands of police, as police brutality was the catalyst for their formation (the former being more blatant). Those inequities persist to this day. Racism is still so thoroughly baked into the criminal justice system that the majority of white adults agree that their Black counterparts are unjustly treated relative to themselves. 

The same can be said about LGBTQ+ people. The authors of the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey wrote outright that the incarceration rate for lesbian, gay and bisexual people was three times higher than the “already high” average rate. Even within the LGBTQ+ acronym, there are vast differences. Gay and bisexual men are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than straight inmates, and at the same time, lesbians and bisexual women are far more likely to be incarcerated in the first place compared to straight women. Nearly one in six transgender Americans has been to prison, and while the abuse of trans women is both widespread and often especially cruel, trans men report disrespectful treatment and harassment by police at higher rates and are just as likely as trans women to be physically assaulted. None of these groups are being treated fairly by the criminal justice system — they’re all being harmed, just in different ways.

Reducing the harm the criminal justice system causes to a handful of communities in certain instances allows its many other systemic injustices to stay under the radar. It simplifies a complex system of many intertwining social issues into unrealistically straightforward, unrelated problems, making large-scale reform near impossible. 

Take for instance the war on drugs. Black people are imprisoned on drug charges at six times the rate of white people despite both groups using drugs at a similar rate. These arrests increase the prison population, who are exploited by for-profit prisons through filling occupancy quotas and manufacturing demand for more prisons. This massive prison population is then continuously exploited by corporations paying them insultingly low wages for their labor. From this lens, racism in the criminal justice system is a tool used to get more prisoners rather than a targeted act in the name of racism.

Rationalizing racism as utilitarian ignores the plain bigotry still at play; if it were strictly about having more prisoners, why not arrest white people at just as high a rate as Black people to maximize the number of inmates? Viewing the war on drugs as strictly an issue of racism is also shortsighted, as harsh drug laws impact several other disadvantaged groups as well. These groups include lower-income people, who are more likely to use illicit drugs and more likely to be found and arrested for it compared to higher-income people, due to the over-policing of poorer neighborhoods. This also includes LGBTQ+ people and mentally ill people, who are also more likely to use drugs, and mentally ill people, who are predisposed to substance abuse issues. Additionally, inmates who are drug offenders with substance abuse disorders make up as much as 65% of the American prison population, but they seldom receive treatment and, unsurprisingly, have a recidivism rate of 76.9% as a result. 

Other groups experience this mistreatment as well. Persons with disabilities are often met with discomfort from nondisabled people. Sometimes it’s pity, sometimes it’s fear, sometimes it’s a sense of awkwardness. While disabled people make up a large portion of the prison population (32% for physical disabilities alone), this goes relatively unnoticed, as does the abuse they experience. 

When practically anyone belonging to any marginalized group is put at such a disadvantage in the criminal justice system, it inevitably hurts more people than it helps. The worst part is that justice systems don’t have to exist to inflict harm on anybody. Restorative justice gets better results with far less misery, but restoration can only take place when you care about the people in your justice system. Prisons serve as a depository for all vulnerable peoples, so only the few who are lucky enough to both not belong to any such group and not be close to anyone who does have reason to accept the system as it stands. 

For the rest of us, our subjugation is so fundamental to its structure that trying to fix it is unfeasible. Our prison system doesn’t just have a systemic racism or queerphobia problem; it has a systemic everything problem, with no intention to rehabilitate those trapped within it (whether they truly need it or not). The end result is a system that whisks marginalized people away to prisons that rarely give up their quarry, keeping them out of sight and out of mind and thereby perpetuating inmates’ abuse invisibly.

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu