CityViews: Punishment is a Contagion that Afflicts Us All

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It is well known that the United States punishment system is the largest in the world, incarcerating over 2.2. million persons with nearly 7 million under supervision. Black and Latinx persons are over-represented in this massive system, accounting for 37 percent of the U.S. population but representing 67 percent of the prison population. Each year over 600,000 persons return from prison to their home communities to confront an array of challenges.

Less well known are the ways in which punishment and incarceration affect individuals, families, social networks, and communities–a contagion that spreads separation, violence and trauma. The effects of incarceration—often referred to as “collateral consequences”—include disruptions to education, training, marriage and other significant life events that can create near insuperable barriers to reconnecting with society, impairing the ability to obtain housing, employment, healthcare and more by, among other things, tarring those who have encountered the punishment system with what Harvard Professor Devah Pager calls the indelible “mark of a criminal record.”

The costs of punishment extend beyond directly impacted persons and communities and exacerbate existing exclusions produced by America’s interlocking power structures. Punishment secured by violence is now a cultural fixture and an economic structure that victimizes all citizens. To understand how this multi-headed hydra has taken root, we take a longer view.

Racial subjugation and the violence it spurred can be traced back to American colonization and the appropriating of Native American land and quelling the threat of insurrection. Slavery was contained by violence, Jim Crow was enforced by violence through lynching, Klan activity and the razing of black towns all over the U.S. like Tulsa, Okla., and Rosewood, Fla.

Punishment and exclusion were also perpetrated through less visible, racialized socio-economic policies highlighted in The Case for Reparations (2015)—Ta-Nehisi Coate’s story of Clyde Ross, a man from a black sharecropping family in Mississippi who traveled to Chicago in pursuit of “protection of the law.” Discriminatory policies largely disqualified blacks from New Deal programs like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, access to the G.I. Bill, and other critical aspects of the social welfare network, and subjected blacks to restrictive covenants in housing, redlining in lending, and outright discrimination in employment. The Civil Rights and other social justice movements of the 1960s were snuffed out by FBI infiltration and assassination.

Today black and brown persons are disproportionately excluded from the electorate and economy and subject to police violence: Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, Botham Jean, to name a few. Prison entrepreneurialism and the prison economy are booming, made more visible by the expansion of the network of ICE detention centers, prison labor that continually pushes deeper into home communities (such as inmates fighting fires in California for $1.00 per hour) and the recent 17-state prison strike that ended in September. And the routine expression of brutality bleeds into the whole of society, as witnessed by the shootings at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas (59 dead), the Parkland High school (17 dead) and Pulse Night Club (49 dead).

The use of socially justified violence to secure dominance, whether under the banner of enforcement, punishment, or social convention, along with demonizing narratives used to justify such dominance over marginalized groups is an obstacle to the experience of citizenship: the ability to fully access and participate in the relationships, institutions and protections of one’s community.

Integral to social citizenship are what people need to live and to fully participate in the life of the community – “human rights,” as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The UDHR principles were laid as a foundation to help assure a new era of peace and justice among nations following the destruction and human suffering of the Second World War. Among its five core notions are human dignity; non-discrimination; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and solidarity rights. Arguably Article 27, which guarantees the “free participation in the cultural life of the community” is a meta-right, encapsulating all of what the UDHR highlights as necessary for human life since a person cannot freely participate in community culture – its way of doing things – without the ability to exercise all rights as human beings. Therefore, full participation is required to be a functioning part of the community.

Punishment-impacted persons are pushed to the margins well beyond time served in prison – often for their entire lives. The stigma associated with imprisonment affects every aspect of a person’s life – from obtaining housing and employment, to voting, education, and the possibility of family reunification. Separation from community life reinforces the necessity for reconciliation affirmed both by community and by law. One small step in bringing about that reconciliation is expungement, a process that erases court-held conviction records and enables persons with criminal conviction histories to hurdle over barriers to full participation that formerly stopped them cold. Expungement’s focus on ending the stigma and negative impact is also an expression of the community’s commitment to remove the mark of exclusion associated with punishment and containment, affirming that returning persons and their families have a place.

A conference this week hosted by the Community Service Society aims to elevate the conversation on criminal records expungement through a series of panels, breakout groups, dialogue, advocacy workshops, art exhibits, theatrical and musical performances. The “Full Participation is a Human Right – Moving Beyond Punishment,” conference begins Thursday, October 11, and runs through Sunday, October 14, at the Community Church of New York (CCNY) located at 40 E. 35th Street, NYC, and at the Commons, located at 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn. For a full list of conference speakers, events and activities please go to: https://www.full-participation.org/

Art and dialogue help people to understand themselves and the human condition, allowing us to better see what we are doing to each other. It is hoped that the ideas, beliefs, values and experiences explored over the coming days, starting with informed conversation and exchanges about personal experience, is the beginning of an answer.

Kimberly Westcott is an associate counsel with the Community Service Society of New York.


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