In the fall I attended a weekend-long workshop in Philadelphia, and the Airbnb we used was across the street from the Eastern State Penitentiary, the first major prison in the United States. Thankfully my mom is a big ol' nerd like myself and was stoked to tour it. It was absolutely fascinating, and I picked up Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer in the gift shop. I like supporting cultural institutions, and since I haven't yet read Mauer's original book, I thought this would be a good addition to my bookshelf.
I wasn’t aware that this was a graphic retelling of Marc Mauer’s Race to Incarcerate, which in full disclosure I haven’t read but need to purchase and dig into, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find this was quite literally a retelling. From start to finish this retelling was clear, concise, and easy to read. I was able to follow the history from the dawn of prisons and the modern penitentiary to our current day obsession with incarceration. I am thankful that my mom was so interested in visiting Eastern State when we went, because I learned a great deal that, when combined with this retelling, opened my eyes to a new angle in understanding incarceration in the United States.
What we know of present-day prisons began in earnest in the 1970’s. Our prison population as grown exponentially in the past four decades to the point where the population is equivaent to a small state. While this book doesn’t go into detail regarding financial statistics, this costs a great deal of money. If you have been paying any attention at all lately to the concerns regarding the privatization of prisons, you know that you have cause for concern. Prisons are big business, and we have our obsession with punishment to blame beginning with everyone’s favorite conservative icon, President Reagan. Not a single political leader in the upper echelon of our government has sought radical prison reform.
One thing that I have been meditating on that came up in this book is the role of prisons. Obviously this book is connected with The New Jim Crow — Michelle Alexander even wrote the introduction — and so these thoughts are nothing new to me. However, I’ve come to a conclusion about prison. You have one of two beliefs about the role of imprisonment: you either believe that it serves to punish or that it serves to support penitence. You might be able to tell from this where I stand.
(Side note: I do believe that there will be incarcerated persons who will never be interested in repentance as it were. That is why things like life sentences exist for what are supposed to be the most egregious crimes. At that point, I do see that punishment becomes the only option. However, shouldn’t punishment be a consequence of a lack of repentance rather than never having the option to become a productive member of society?)
You can see what people believe in the ramifications of post-prison life, including the lack of standardized services helping newly released men and women get on their feet, the box that one must check stating they’ve been convicted of a felony, and disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons, to name just a few. We get to make a decision as the generation in power regarding what we want to do with the humanity we’ve been given. There’s much more on this subject than this little blog post — seek it out, dive into it, and think about the information that may not match what you think you know and believe.