This I Believe

Rose - Oakland, California
Entered on February 20, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe people should not be locked in cages.

I believe people should not be locked in cages. At first blush, that may seem like common sense. You may think, ‘of course, people should not be locked in cages’ – until you remember that today, in the United States, we lock around 2 million people in cages.

We just don’t call them cages. We call them prisons, jails; juvenile or immigration detention centers. Some are massive, some are smaller. Some purportedly provide rehabilitation and education. Some simply punish. But, in the end they are all the same: they are cages, where we lock away people we no longer wish to be part of our communities.

I came to this fundamental belief after witnessing the impact of imprisonment on my family. Prisons failed to deliver on promises to cure my uncle’s addiction. Rather, imprisonment contributed to his problem, at a huge cost to taxpayers and to social services.

And just as prisons failed to cure my uncle’s problems, I witnessed prisons’ failure to deliver on promises to keep my community safe.

While many people will agree that prisons aren’t an answer to drug addiction or poverty and that prisons are not making our communities safer, they are reluctant to join me as an abolitionist, asking what will we do instead?

If our ultimate goal is a society where harm occurs far less often, and when harm does occur, the root causes of that harm are addressed, I believe we need to shift away from society’s investment in prisons and toward a real investment in resources like education, health care, and housing – resources that truly build safe communities.

Many will also fear that a vision of a world without prisons is utopian, unrealistic. But, in history, many institutions have appeared unchangeable.

Until the late 18th century, eliminating one of the fundamental aspects of the British Empire’s economy – slavery – was unimaginable. Yet as historian Adam Hochschild writes, through persistent effort, 12 individuals who met in 1787 created enough momentum that 51 years later, Britain abolished slavery.

The first U.S. slavery abolitionists arose with the American Revolution, but it took almost a century to abolish slavery in the U.S.

Hochschild framed the challenge this way: “The fact that the battle against slavery was won must give us pause when considering great modern injustices, such as the gap between rich and poor, nuclear proliferation, [ ] war” – and I would add imprisonment. “None of these problems will be solved overnight, or perhaps even in the fifty years it took to end British slavery. But they will not be solved at all unless people see them as both outrageous and solvable.” And I do.