Reform. Reform. Reform.
California, like much of the rest of the country, is scrambling back into a version of lockdown as our covid case count soars. I have been fixated on a world map of the virus from the Harvard Global Health Institute where you can get an overview of case counts by country, and also by state and county in the US. Everything is color coded for quick analysis. My county, Solano, is color coded orange, which means 10-24 cases on average per 100,000 a day on a 7-day moving average, which indicates that there is still accelerated spread. The recommendation is to stay-at-home while instituting a rigorous test and trace program.
Last week, there were only a couple of counties in California that were red, including Marin county, the only red county in the whole of the Bay Area. Red means 25+ cases per 100,000 people, with stay-at-home orders necessary in order to contain the spread. That piqued my interest. Marin county is the whitest and wealthiest county in the Bay, which would seem to contradict the general understanding that the virus affects poor, minority, and marginalized people in a disproportionate way. After some brief research and googling, it turns out that indeed, most of the spread is linked to workplaces where people don't have the option to work at home, like service and sanitation jobs, while other outbreaks have been traced to a densely populated area home to mostly immigrant families. I don't know what to make of it exactly, but I find it interesting that in a county with steep disparities, covid has had a outsized affect on the overall number of cases while primarily affecting people who have less money. Marin County has since turned orange, but as of this writing still has more than double new cases that San Francisco and about 30% more than my own county has. California overall has many more red counties this week than last.
And then there is the outbreak at the San Quinten State Prison which is located on the shore of San Francisco Bay on the edge of Marin County. For reasons that I don't understand and is not explained in any article I've read about it, their case count, which is so far 1,302 (about half the inmate population)and death rate (11 people as of this writing)is not being counted toward the Marin County total. So where exactly are their lives being counted? And the reason for the spread of the infection in the prison is frankly outrageous: incarcerated men from Chino State prison were transferred to San Quinten because of an outbreak at Chino, yet none of the transferred men were tested, and the virus quickly spread thereafter. In any other setting, this would be criminal neglect, and institutions would be sued, if not completely shut down. But these are prisoners, and that very word means their lives are worth less in our society, and thus far the consequences have been minor.
I have been following the San Quinten outbreak with interest for weeks because one of my favorite podcasts, Ear Hustle, is created in collaboration with the incarcerated men there. The podcast episodes focus in on the personal stories of the men, their life "inside", prison culture, survival tactics, as well as the events that led them to prison. San Quinten is unusual among prisons in that they have developed many arts, sports, rehabilitation and educational programs for the men imprisoned there. It is one of the few prisons in the world that produces a newspaper, and the only one in California that has a college-degree granting program. While I consider prisons to be a fundamentally inhumane and ineffective way to deal with the vast majority of the crimes that are committed, I think San Quinten stands out among American prisons as a place that does things a little bit differently. But San Quinten is still a prison, part of our American system that incarcerates people at the highest rate on the planet, and vilifies and de-humanizes them in order to control and punish long after they have left prison behind. The outbreak and death of incarcerated people-- not to mention the guards and employees--at San Quinten and other prisons is a travesty, and their vulnerability to the virus is just one more trial they are expected to endure. And it's not just San Quinten, it's every prison across the Unites States. America would not be having this problem if we didn't have a mass incarceration problem to begin with, not to mention a sentencing problem that exacerbates the problem of prisons being overcrowded. In the relentless and implacable way that the virus continues to show us where our cultural and societal structures are weak and fraying, it is highlighting how our prisons are built to disproportionately punish vulnerable people, and are in need of immediate and intense reform. The hearts and minds of Americans also need some rehabilitation when it comes to how we think about justice and punishment, and how we view people who commit crimes.
I was still tripping on the stats from Marin County and San Quinten prison when I went into the studio and turned on one of Brené Brown's latest podcasts on shame and accountability. Nothing gets me excited like a talk on shame from Brené. These days she is directing her talk toward white people around taking responsibility and being accountable in this time of reckoning with white supremacy and systemic racism, and dealing with the shame and guilt that comes along with recognizing our part in it. But the podcast is also a 101 course on the difference between feeling guilt, feeling shame, and being shamed, and the ineffectiveness of shame and humiliation as a tool of justice. Brené says:
Sham(ing)is not an effective social justice tool. Shame is a tool of oppression. Shame is a tool white supremacy, humiliation, belittling. Those are tools of injustice, they are not tools for justice. Shame corrodes the belief we can be better and do better. Shame is much more likely to cause dangerous and destructive behavior than be the cure. Shame itself is inherently dehumanizing.
She also pointed to some newer research that indicates connections between humiliation and violence. I think it's pretty evident that American culture is built around principles of using shame and humiliation as a tool of punishment and control, rather than our professed values of rehabilitation. This is interesting to consider in light of Brené's assertion that these are mechanisms of white supremacy, and then you consider how our country was built on a system of slavery. It's all connected, and it's no accident that people of color are subjected to this system in unequal numbers. When we look at how that plays out in our prison system-- its recidivism rates, the violence and brutality, the excessive punishment for non-violent crimes-- it is more than clear that criminal justice reform is part of the overall racial justice restoration we are going to be engaging in the years to come. The way we punish people is undermining civil society, and it's so bad even the Koch Brothers think we need to get on this!
This is obviously a topic I care about, and if you have not thought deeply about incarcerated people or our criminal justice system, I urge you to click on the links I've already provided above and also check some of these out:
The Marshall Project: A nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that educates and seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system through award-winning journalism.
Equal Justice Initiative: An advocacy group dedicated to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenge racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
Book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explains how Black men have been targeted for incarceration through systematic policy means, such as the War on Drugs, and then denied their rights even after they have been released from prison including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.
The Innocence Project: A legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The Bail Project: A non-profit group providing bail assistance to people who have been deemed eligible for release before trial but cannot afford to post bail. They are also an advocacy group working to overturn the bail system in the United States.
Terry Gross recently interviewed psychiatrist Christine Montross about her new book