Enabling Reinvention

Why We Need to Destigmatize Incarceration

By Mariama Sidibe

“The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.” This statistic gets thrown around in documentaries, classrooms, and by activists. There is no denying that the American justice system is broken, and has been for a long time. For social justice activists, prison reform means ending the criminalization of black and brown bodies. For teachers, it is working to end the school to prison pipeline by educating themselves on prejudices that play out in the classroom. For politicians it is revealing the ways in which the justice system has failed Americans- and how they plan on reforming inequalities if voted into office. While all of these actions are a step in the right direction towards reducing mass incarceration, who is doing the work to destigmatize prisoners?

In 1996 John Dilulio coined the term “superpredator” to refer to young people who he described as being violent and incapable of remorse. These ideas, in conjunction with policies that promote retribution developed in American courts, have resulted in a nationwide fear of rising crime rates. The consequence of these fears has been the loss of freedom for young men and women who grew up in a culture of criminalization. Mandatory minimums, the three-strike law and the death penalty have caught attention for the damaging impact they have had on low-income marginalized communities. There is work being done to prevent young men and women from committing crimes- but society turns a blind eye when the same youths are targeted by the justice system that was meant to protect them.

There are clauses in the Civil Right Act that protect people from discrimination the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, disability as well as age. These protections were made because of the discrimination that has occurred historically for people who are not white men in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse. As a consequence of the discriminatory practices of the justice system there is now a growing population of formerly incarcerated people who face no protections from discrimination. This population is also largely made up from people of marginalized low-income backgrounds. When 1 in 4 black boys are predicted to go to prison in their lifetime, it becomes clear that the class of race is not truly protected. When we prevent formerly incarcerated people from having a protected status in society, they face the threat of being dehumanized.

If we want people to truly learn from their mistakes, we would give them a second chance to move forward with their lives. Retribution has been proven time and time again to be an ineffective way to reduce recidivism. When someone commits a crime, we strip them of their freedoms and liberties- must we also strip them of their humanity? If America is truly the land of opportunity, we must stop stealing opportunity from our fellow humans all because of a crime that they committed.

When someone is locked up far away from our sight it becomes easy to stop seeing them as similar to us, we become desensitized to their pain because it is so well hidden. Their families and friends do not stop feeling the pain when their loved ones are incarcerated, nor do they stop feeling the pain when they are locked out by society. Communities who have faced heavy policing are marked by their fear of those tasked with the duty to protect. Instead of providing equal access to education, job opportunities, or housing- our government has responded to struggling communities by making them targets of state violence. The access to opportunity in America has become an elitist fantasy that rejects anyone who doesn’t fit the mold of respectability or whiteness. As a society we have forgotten how to forgive people for their transgressions, or how to question the circumstances behind their transgressions. Incarceration is woven into the fabric of American history no matter how hard society tries to forget about those hidden from our sight. Until we destigmatize incarceration and formerly incarcerated people, marginalized communities will keep falling into the perpetual system of violence and fear.

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