“reformed”—less prone to heroin use and more employable?
Mainstream social scientists are now hypothesizing that, at a certain point, incarceration actually promotes crime. 6 Large-scale studies from the Justice Department have linked high rates of incarceration with high rates of reoffending, and recent data shows a correlation between reduced crime and reduced prison populations. 7
As early as the 1970s, officials were decrying the failures of mass incarceration to improve “public safety.” The US government-sponsored National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals reported that prisons were, essentially, useful only for confining people who were serially prone to extreme physical violence. In fact, just a few years before the war on drugs began to blow the prison population up to five times its size, the commission recommended that no new prisons for adults be built and that juvenile facilities be swiftly shut down. “The prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking level of failure,” it concluded. 8
After one has passed through this rite of failure, what comes next—or what’s supposed to come next? “Reentry” is the mostcommon term for the process of a prisoner returning to society. I’m not crazy about it. What are prisoners “reentering” into? What were the circumstances they left behind when they went to prison—and when they leave prison, who’s to say those circumstances have changed? For many, the reality becomes a circular rotation through the innards of an omnipresent system, from which an exit—let alone a “reentry”—feels nearly impossible.
“It’s Healthier to Disconnect”
Mauricio Rueben has “only two more years!” on his thirty-year marijuana-trafficking sentence in federal prison. In a letter to Eric Holder (a copy of which he sends me), he writes, “I am a black male, born in Cuba, raised in Texas, been in the US my entire life. I paid my taxes, received my voters card, registered with the US military, and was summoned for the occasional jury duty.” After twenty-eight years in prison, he strains to continue to feel a part of the society to which he pledged loyalty, the society he left behind half a lifetime ago.
He tells me: “The truth is that anyone sentenced to over five years will have to undergo some degree of disconnect in order to mentally survive on the inside. Not hearing from friends and loved ones, not being able to do anything about anything that happens to sons, daughters, mothers, brothers etc. is emotionally, mentally, and physically stressful. If one dwells on the outside events, it can wreak havoc on one’s health. Thus, it is healthier to disconnect to some degree.”
This psychological switch is hard to flick off upon release, he says, and he points to it as an important factor that functions alongside more visible oppressions, helping to explain why the same faces keep popping up in prison as the years pass. “I’ve seen many men come, go, and come back again. Most of them on aviolation, but a fair share on a new case with double-digit sentences,” Mauricio writes to me. Lots of them, he says, emerge to find that the mental “disconnect” that served them well in prison deals a blow to their ability to survive outside.
Inside prison, one’s most evident identity becomes “inmate,” as opposed to partner or parent or child or grandchild or friend. By the time of release, that “inmate” identity—the person distanced from family, whose contribution is “unnecessary,” who does things wrong, whose abandonment is preordained—can cling to a person. According to a study headed by Todd Clear and Dina Rose, the researchers who described imprisonment in terms of “social disorganization,” prisoners tend to self-isolate once released: “We saw evidence of isolation when we asked returning offenders about their neighbors; frequently they said they were careful to stay away from people,
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