Posted on The Nation blog, June 12, 2007. To view the original, click here.
Last Friday, as the “The Judgment of Paris” media circus filled our airwaves (those very airwaves which, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently reminded us in an intelligent New York Times op-ed, belong to us, the people), I emailed Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, and one of the smartest criminal justice reformers and activists working in the field today. I figured if anyone had something insightful and humane to say about this uber-tabloid moment—and what it revealed about the failures of our criminal justice system–it would be Gaynes.
For more than two decades, she has led the Osborne Association—working with prisoners, former prisoners, their children, and other family members to help them reenter the workplace, rebuild their families and rejoin their communities. Today, Osborne staff provides services —- parenting education, job training, mental health and family counseling, HIV prevention–that help transform the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.
As Gaynes reminded me, today Osborne provides services in *more* prisons than existed when she began working in prisons– soon after the Attica uprising of 1971. (In 1971, 12,000 people were crowded into 12 prisons in New York state; today New York has nearly 70 prisons and more than 60,000 men and women in them.) “Prison and perpetual punishment” should not be “our heavy weapons for the war on crime and war on drugs,” Gaynes insists. Those “weapons,” she argues” are designed for fighting the last war.” (For more about the Osborne Association’s invaluable work, go to Osborneny.org and full disclosure–I am a board member.)
Gaynes’ reply, which I am posting below, seems to me a thoughtful antidote to so much of the sensationalistic media commentary surrounding Paris Hilton’s brief incarceration.
“Overall, I thought Jon Stewart named it right: ‘Shaw-Skank Redemption.'” But seriously, I do think it actually exposes rather virulent assumptions within American vengeance…..There is the Sharpton line, that she should go to jail because her privilege does not get a Get-Out-of-Jail Free card. Also, progressives, aware of the ridiculous disparities of race and class within the criminal justice system, seem to get great pleasure out of people of privilege going to jail. But if we take the position – which I certainly have – that jail should be reserved for only those for whom there is no alternative and should be designed with treatment to address the behaviors that led to the infraction, then 23 days in jail is surely pointless.
You may recall that when the Fastows (Andrew and Lea of Enron) were sentenced to prison, they asked for (and received) sentences that did not coincide, so that they would not both be in prison at the same time and thereby disrupt their children’s lives. Everyone recognized that this was only because of their race and class. Parents of minor children who are poor people of color never have their children’s wellbeing considered during sentencing and, in fact, the assumption is that the child of a poor black mother does not really need that parent as much as the Fastow children needed theirs, and that the Fastows (despite stealing billions of dollars from stockholders) could still be good parents, but that a poor woman charged with theft or drug sales had little to offer a child, who might actually be “better off” without her.
Anyway, when that story came out a lot of good people said, that’s outrageous, they should not get that privilege. But in fact, the problem is not that they WERE given that consideration but that others were NOT. The reality is that although the jailers have nothing in common with Paris Hilton, they felt that they knew her and recognized her humanity, naturally leading them to feel “sorry” for her and release her. On the other hand, most people in jail are “other” to those who hold them, and so how they are treated, the length of their incarceration, becomes possible.
When I visited a Canadian prison several years ago, I saw five units of “motel” type housing, and learned that they allowed “Family Reunion” programs, as we do in New York, where families can visit for 48 hours in a private setting. When I asked about the Canadian model, they explained that at any given time, four prisoners can have extended visits with their families within these “motel” rooms. When I pointed out that there were five units, how come there would only be four visits, they explained: well, the fifth unit is used for men who have been in prison for a long time and have no families. We allow them to go in there by themselves for a couple of days because, you know, sometimes people need to be alone.
The ability of these Canadian prison authorities to recognize the higher order need to be alone was only possible because they recognized the full humanity of the people in their custody. Perhaps because the prisoners and guards were mostly all the same race and class – French Canadian. If those who ran our jails saw everyone who came through as if they were important, what happened in Paris Hilton’s case would be common.
Now of course perhaps Ms. Hilton needs a “time out”, and maybe she will learn a lesson from this. Most transformative change comes when people have significant emotional events or challenges. But if she is an alcoholic or an addict, she will need something more than what jail offers. And if she is just a brat, the experience will just be one more “risk” that she seems to thrive on.