I recently read this powerful piece by Jean Trounstine. Jean has graciously agreed to let me repost it here, so that I can share it with my readers. It originally appeared at jeantrounstine.com


 

Every semester my students from Voices Behind Bars, a class I teach at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, go to prison. They used to visit state institutions but now that the Massachusetts state prisons do not offer tours (perhaps because it is a hassle to have outsiders trooping through them and criticizing what they see) the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.

Originally, the Middlesex House of Correction was built in 1929 and housed 300 men. Now it has more than 1100, after a $37 million dollar expansion which prison officials say was to accommodate the closing of the Cambridge Jail —not without objections from activists and community members who opposed more prison building (actually costing $43 million per The Lowell Sun.)

I’ve always thought it’s not ideal to have my students learn about prison by going to a place where people are only kept for 2 1/2 years, the county sentence at a house of correction. Certainly a far cry from a life sentence. I told myself students couldn’t really learn as much about the strains of prison without seeing the harsher conditions that exist in state institutions. That is, until this last visit.

Most of the tour went as usual. We went through the older part of the facility where cells can get up to 110 degrees in the summer. We saw the visiting room where men talk to their loved ones through glass. The officer who showed the students around Billerica explained that prisoners must walk on the green stripes in the hallways; there were the usual men cleaning with mops and pushing large barrels down walkways; the smell was of too much cleaning fluid. We passed through the health unit where men were waiting to see practitioners and others were isolated in cells. It was prison as usual.

We no longer are allowed to see the Hole or what prison officials call the Segregation Unit, since men are there disciplined to solitary confinement which my students know Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said can drive men mad. Therefore, the highlight of the tour is always taking them into what is called a “pod.” A pod is the relatively new term in prison construction where prisoners can live in a contained unit. These pods are somewhat stale and robot-like but they allow the COs the ability to see what is going on.

We entered the pod where men do drug treatment and have earned some privileges. It has the reputation of being a better place to reside than the old part of the institution which is pretty grim and can house two men in a cell. To the left is one old institutional unit at Blillerica, looking a little prettier than it really is with whitewashed grey walls, all somehow devoid of color in reality:

On the pod we entered, those incarcerated run some of the addiction groups themselves, we were told. On the tier above the day room where prisoners sit, eat, and play cards at the tables, are rows of cells where men live. The same cells are on the first floor all around the room.  Each cell has a tiny vertical slit—a window—and when we come into their space, the men inevitably stare out the window at us. At times, they’ve pounded on their doors; at other times, they’ve all been at tables eating lunch, trying to ignore the fact that there are outsiders nearby.

This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the slit.

“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.

I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.

I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.

But the young man’s face lit with joy when he saw her, and before we left that unit, it was almost as if a light went off for her too. Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.

When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison was not just a physical place, but a deep wound.

The two images reprinted below have appeared widely in media outlets over the past weeks. Eerily similar? Both show armed police or soldiers carrying shields facing off against unarmed people of color. Without careful perusal, it’s hard to tell which caption belongs with which photo.

liberia

ferguson

“Liberian Soldiers Seal Slum to Halt Ebola” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2014

“Photo Essay: Police and Protesters in Ferguson” St. Louis Post-Dispatch  Aug. 14, 2014

The Stories Behind the Photos

In Liberia’s capital city last week, residents of a densely populated, poor neighborhood protested when security forces sealed off their community as a quarantine measure in response to the Ebola outbreak. According to reports, residents asserted that not only had they been cut off from their homes but also that they were being disproportionately exposed to the virus because sick people from outside their community were being brought into an Ebola screening center set up in their neighborhood by the government.

In Ferguson, Missouri, when residents took to the streets to protest the shooting by a police officer of Michael Brown – an unarmed African-American youth, thousands of law enforcement officers as well as National Guard were deployed to contain the demonstrators. As of this writing, several hundred protesters have been arrested.

Poverty, Inequality and The Burden of Disease

Liberia is among the poorer nations of the world. In 2012 the gross national income per capita was $580; 75 babies out of 1000 could be expected to die before the age of five; and the total annual expenditure on healthcare was a meager $102 per capita. The top causes of mortality in Liberia include malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections, AIDS and malnutrition.  Neither money nor the burden of disease is distributed evenly in Liberia. As calculated by the GINI index, Liberia is one of the least economically egalitarian countries in the world.

Fifteen years ago, Ferguson was a predominantly white middle class suburb of St. Louis. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black . Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that in 2014 every Ferguson neighborhood but one has a poverty rate over 20%, “the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear.”

In the state of Missouri, the rate of poverty among Black men is twice that of white men (22.5% vs. 11.6%). Among Missouri women, 24.3% of Black women vs. 14.5% of white women are living in poverty. In St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located), the rate of emergency room visits due to asthma among children under 15 years is 52% higher than the overall rate for the state. (High rates of childhood asthma are associated with environmental pollution and substandard living conditions.) The rate of infant mortality is 9% higher than the state’s rate and 21% higher than the U.S. national rate. The rate of babies born with a low birth weight (an excellent indicator of women’s overall health status and of the child’s future health status) is 8% higher than the state’s rate, and 20% higher than the national rate.

The Legacy of Injustice: War on the Poor and the Ill

Liberians are struggling with the aftermath of two recent civil wars. “Liberian scholars offer a range of explanations for the years of conflict including ethnic divisions, predatory elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that underlying those proximate causes, the seeds of conflict were sown by the historical decision to establish Liberia as a state divided between natives and settlers, and the use of force to sustain the settlers’ hegemony.” While many Liberians are incarcerated for the “crime” of being poor or disliked by the police, perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the civil war have not been punished. Following the civil wars, according to Amnesty International, “Senators, Deputy Ministers, police officials, Special Security Service agents and Liberia National Police officers were allegedly engaged in or ordered beatings, looting, arbitrary arrests, abductions, shootings, ritualistic killings and other abuses. In most cases, no investigations were carried out and no action was taken against alleged perpetrators. … Law enforcement forces were reported to have unlawfully arrested and detained people and to have used torture and other ill-treatment, including during attempts to extort money on the streets. … Conditions in police lock-ups were appalling, with juveniles and adults routinely held together. Detainees were often subject to abuse by police and other detainees. … The formal justice system often failed to deliver fair trials and due process. Lengthy pre-trial detention beyond that allowed by law was the norm, with roughly 90 per cent of prisoners being pre-trial detainees. As well as corruption and inefficiency, the system suffered from lack of transport, court facilities, lawyers and qualified judges.”

Residents of Ferguson are struggling with the historical legacy of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, nearly four decades of ‘trickle-down’ economics that have eliminated middle and working-class jobs in the mid-west and throughout the country, and housing policies that price low-income Americans out of the housing market and segregate people of color in densely populated neighborhoods with lousy schools and housing and crumbling infrastructures.

Ferguson residents are also struggling with what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow” – decades-long ‘tough on crime’ policies that primarily targeted men of color and have led to the United States claiming the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. In 2012, one out of every 200 Missouri residents was in prison or jail serving a sentence of one year or longer. And, unlike in much of the rest of the country, Missouri’s prison population actually rose 1.3% in 2012. Incarceration rates for white men in Missouri in 2012 were 650.6 per 100,000. Among black men in it was nearly six times that: 3,640 per 100,000. Law enforcement personnel, like members of all three branches of government in Missouri, are overwhelmingly white.

Last year, Ferguson used municipal court fines to fund 20.2 percent of the city’s $12.75 million budget. (Just two years earlier, municipal court fines had accounted for only 12.3 percent of the city’s revenues.) Incarceration rates specifically for Ferguson are not available. But, statistics posted on the Ferguson municipal website hint at the facts on the ground. In 2012 (the last year for which data are posted) Ferguson exhibited a striking gender imbalance in its population.

Male population 9,279  (43.9%)
Female population 11,856  (56.1%)

Women do live longer than men in most of the world, but the gender disparity in Ferguson is more in line with war zones – with countries like Liberia that have experienced lengthy civil wars — than with American “suburbs.” If I had to make an educated guess as to the whereabouts of the missing men I’d guess dead or in jail. The face-off in the photo above certainly makes that guess plausible.

For What It’s Worth

We Americans like to believe that “this kind of thing” could never happen “here.” We’re shocked by the egregious killing of a young man in Ferguson, by the outraged community response and by the overtly militarized law-enforcement response. We’re less shocked by the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of Ebola in places like Liberia. But – as we’ve seen over the past few weeks – the systemic inequalities that give rise to poverty  and disease “over there” also drive anger, distrust and mass incarceration right here in America.

With a nod to the Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 masterpiece: “There’s something happening here / What it is ‘IS’ exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware / I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound / Everybody look what’s going down.”

Please check out my new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

And for more on the social context of responses to the Ebola outbreak check out: Ebola and US and Ebola, Secret Serums and Me