Humanizing the Prison System

By Maggie Goddard 7-30-2010

"I hate civilians," Warden Clooney barked into the microphone. With these words, David Chura thrusts the reader into his experiences from a New York county penitentiary, where he taught high school for ten years. He begins his book I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine with his own new employee orientation, where a retiring warden bluntly expresses his own frustrations.

Chura effectively illustrates the effects of our broken prison system through the stories of youth prosecuted as adults while simultaneously humanizing its various actors -- the keepers and the kept. He introduces the different roles within this dispiriting setting -- correctional officers, wardens, family members, doctors and nurses, and the kids themselves, whose real stories illustrate the effects of systemic problems plaguing our society -- drugs, gang violence, AIDS, poverty, and abuse -- compounded with issues of race, class, and mental health.

In one chapter, one of his students, Ray, commemorates his 21st birthday by graphing the major events of his life -- when he was first sent to foster homes, to state detention centers, psychiatric hospitalizations, and drug rehabs. He maps his abandonment, his abuse, when he robbed, when he was raped. And yet, after completing this downward declining chart, Ray declares, "It's all good," as if to say that "no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much pain there is, life is all good, all lives are good."

Unfortunately, these lives are all too often ravaged by the disappointment and destruction entrenched in the prison system. Instead of rehabilitating youth, current carceral structures perpetuate systems of oppression through retribution rather than restoration.

While there have been recent attempts at addressing physical abuse and the inadequacies of mental health counseling in the juvenile justice system, we must demand more fundamental change to ensure rehabilitation rather than the perpetuation of violence and inequality.

Exacting revenge and employing "an-eye-for-an-eye" ideology is both expensive and devastating. According to Jim Webb (D-VA) in a recent PARADE magazine article, the United States, with just 5 percent of the world's population, holds almost 25 percent of the world's reported prisoners. $68 billion are spent every year to fund such human warehousing.

While Chura produces no panacea to our prison problem, his book does offer an accessible introduction to the carceral system by humanizing those involved. The next step for us is to recognize our own commitments to this societal issue, to realize that we are complicit in a destructive system and effect change on the basis of our common humanity.

Maggie Goddard is the summer editorial intern for Sojourners and a student at Haverford College.

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