Perspective: Why treating incarcerated people as less than hurts us all

On a recent Friday night I sat at my kitchen table, leashed to the wall by my short cell phone charging cord while I frantically called number after number, desperate to figure out a way to get a call through to a beloved family member who had been arrested. I was confused by the directions. I was maxing out a credit card to make these pricey calls to correction centers, desperate to get her on the phone knowing it would be days before she had a chance to see a judge and get bail set.

I finally broke down in tears as I talked to yet another person who, using words I’d never heard before, sped through the directions under what I later realized was the assumption that I should already know how to make this call. When I finally said to one operator, “I’ve never done this before. Please walk me through this,” her entire tone changed. She realized I wasn’t from a family of frequent offenders, and I noticed that afterwards she treated me more humanely, and more deserving of compassion.

In February, when news broke that incarcerated people in a Brooklyn jail were rattling the bars to tell people on the streets that they were freezing because there had been a power outage, one only needed to skim the comment threads to witness the warped dismissal of these suffering fellow humans. Comments like, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” and “Who cares? We have other people to spend money on before these dirt bags,” were rampant. People don’t want to feel compassion toward criminals. It’s much more acceptable to view them as less than the rest of us, and to believe they aren’t deserving of our understanding or love.

When faced with these scenarios, those arguing on behalf of prisoners will often point out that 75 percent of people in jails have not yet seen a courtroom, or discuss the racial disparity among jail populations. These are both valid reasons to treat prisoners more humanely, but they aren’t enough. Even if they were given a fair trial, even if they had committed the worst crimes, these are still members of our community, and they deserve humane treatment.

Too often in our society we dehumanize incarcerated people, we lack compassion towards them, which serves only to perpetuate the very behaviors that got them arrested to begin with. To take it a step further, not one of us lives in a bubble. Incarcerated people have friends and family who are also impacted by their arrest. At a talk on incarceration and families in March, Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) said, “Our rate of incarceration is our rate of victimizing children.”

I live just a few blocks from a prison, and the sign outside of the building reads, “Correction Facility.” But the fact is, our prisons aren’t correcting much of anything. Approximately two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years and children of incarcerated people are more likely to commit crimes themselves, largely due to the way our culture and our laws treat them.

In recent months, discussion around the rights of incarcerated people has been occurring in the political sphere as well as around our kitchen tables. In the Maine legislature, our representatives have been debating access to menstrual products, measures to ensure inmates don’t lose their health insurance and the unfairness of the bail system. Nationally, Democratic presidential candidates have disagreed over whether or not inmates should be allowed to vote – but the discussion of these things is not enough.

Across the board, as these topics are discussed, solutions and policies should be grounded in the need to do what we can to allow our incarcerated citizens an opportunity to retain their dignity, while actively working to ensure they can be part of society once they are released. We need to support bills that will turn correctional facilities into facilities that actually rehabilitate behavior, instead of indefinite holding cells.

The incarceration of people creates a ripple effect, as their treatment impacts their loved ones, and their loved ones’ loved ones, until eventually it impacts an entire community. By making it harder and harder for children to visit their incarcerated parents we aren’t just punishing the parent, we are increasing the chances that the child will later sit in the same cell. By limiting menstrual products we aren’t saving a few bucks, we’re diminishing someone’s humanity, which can have long term effects.

In the end, my own loved one spent a total of five days in jail. A few months later, a judge dropped all charges against her, but the time in between was a harsh introduction to just how quickly an arrest changes how we view an individual. It is imperative that we support efforts to lower our incarceration rates and make our judicial system more fair. We need to ensure that we are not losing our own humanity and damaging our communities by treating prisoners as less than human.

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