[[Content Note: Carcerality, violence, both in this post and at the link.]]
A US Attorney in Manhattan has released the results of an inquiry into civil rights violations against teenagers at Riker’s Island. The report concludes that the guards at Rikers engaged in regular, routine and violent abuse of teenage inmates.
I was struck by this quote in particular:
“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” Mr. Bharara said at a news conference announcing the findings. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine, while accountability is rare.”
I imagine that accountability will be the byword for addressing the horrendous actions cataloged in the report, but accountability is only half the story. I find it incredibly frustrating that the other half will be almost entirely ignored.
Accountability is important; it is very important for enforcing rules and codes of conduct. But accountability will never get at the root of this culture of violence (and I resent the quotes the NYTimes article puts around the phrase). Accountability cannot teach a man to see as human another person that he has been conditioned to see as inhuman.
Every part of the modern criminal punishment system is dehumanizing. It has gone from a side effect of incarceration to an intentional, magnified and relentless part of punishment that begins at the first point of contact with law enforcement and persists long after release from incarceration and any other supervision such as parole or probation.
I do not intend to excuse the individual decisions of the guards who committed this horrid violence upon vulnerable people. The system is violent and dehumanizing but an individual still chooses to go with it rather than fight it, and in my own anecdotal experience, the system as it is attracts people who are violent bullies and would be violent bullies no matter their occupation. What the system does is give shelter and authority to bullies, allowing and even encouraging them to give free reign to their violent tendencies.
Bullies need to beheld accountable but accountability is only part of the picture. So long as it is acceptable to dehumanize people who are incarcerated it will be hard to enforce rules that are meant to protect inmates. When it’s acceptable to refer to meals in jails and prisons as ‘feeding time,’ when inmates are animals and not human beings, then there can never be a relationship between guards and inmates that rises above fear and violence.
And, to repeat the refrain. Our system of incarceration is not the only option. The WAY we incarcerate people is not the only option. And there’s every indication that it isn’t even the most effective method if the intent is to make us safer.
Because these boys are us. These boys will grow to be men and they will still be us. Us is all of us. Us is every person in this country, every person on this planet. Us is all of humanity. To segregate some of us and label them as other only creates a culture of violence.