Spotlight: Challenging Lawmakers to Go Inside Prisons and Jails

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Spotlight: Challenging Lawmakers to Go Inside Prisons and Jails

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Last week, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) launched a campaign, calling on state and federal lawmakers to visit a prison, jail, or juvenile detention facility in the next 12 months. The challenge highlights the fact that although legislators make the laws governing when people can be sent to jail or prison, and for how long; when children can be prosecuted as adults and sent to adult prisons; and conditions of confinement, they are not required to actually step foot in these facilities to see them from the inside and hear from people incarcerated there.

In a letter sent to every federal legislator, FAMM’s president wrote, “Too often, lawmakers simply don’t know what prisons or jails are like—and they can’t know, unless they go and see for themselves.”

Supporters of the challenge chimed in on social media, sharing their thoughts on why going inside prisons and jails, talking to incarcerated people and their visitors, and holding prison administrators accountable matters.

Speaking on Twitter of the campaign, Sister Helen Prejean, the prominent anti-death penalty advocate, said: “I knew nothing about prisons until my first visit in the ’80s. Each visit is a reminder of what most of us try to ignore: the humanity of the incarcerated and the inhumanity of what we do to them. Insist that your lawmakers visit!”

James Forman Jr., law professor and author, urged his state lawmakers to visit and talk to incarcerated people on those visits, saying, “You will meet people you have tremendous challenges, tremendous needs … mental health needs, addiction needs, educational needs. But you will also meet people with great promise, great potential.”

FAMM’s challenge, which was supported and joined by several organizations, comes amid the continuing revelations about conditions in Border Patrol detention facilities. These facilities, wholly unsuited for the long-term detention of children or adults, have forced attention to the problem of the large-scale incarceration of people crossing the border. Reports about the lack of space, nutritious food, and basic hygiene, and the prolonged detention of children and adults in these conditions, led some Democratic lawmakers to visit detention facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas. And the vice president and some Republican lawmakers visited two detention facilities last week. Not surprisingly, the two groups did not reach the same conclusions.

As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told David Remnick of the New Yorker in an interview last week, conditions in one of the facilities were “the physical manifestation of Trump’s rhetoric in calling migrants animals. Because that’s how these women were being treated. Their hair was falling out, they had sores in their mouth due to the lack of nutrition in the food that they were being given.”

These conditions are nightmarish. They are also not unimaginable in a country that routinely subjects incarcerated people to inhumane conditions.

John Pfaff, the law professor and author, wrote on Twitter:

In jails, prisons, and detention facilities across the country, in blue states and red states, in cities and in rural areas, people are held in unhealthy, violent, and dangerous conditions.

Despite being all around us, prisons and jails are often treated as being somewhere else. For years, maps on New York City subway trains did not show Rikers Island, the nation’s largest penal colony, even though it sits just a few minutes from LaGuardia Airport. It was literally erased.

Lawmakers vote on legislation related to criminal statutes, to parole, and to sentencing. So it matters that they are not just encouraged but required to see the conditions under which people in their districts live, to see how public dollars are being spent, and to see how government employees are doing their jobs. When President Barack Obama visited a federal prison, he was the first sitting presidentto do so.

But, as the feedback that FAMM has been inviting pointed out, a scheduled, guided tour won’t give visitors a look at what really goes on in prisons. Furthermore, the conclusions that lawmakers reach are likely to hew closely to their perspective before they went in. Lawmakers who already have questions about the treatment of people in custody may learn new details that they can work to address. Others, who fundamentally believe people in prison deserve little in the way of dignity, health, and safety, may leave with their views unchanged.

Lawmakers, as well as the prosecutors who seek detention and incarceration and the judges who order it, should be required to visit jails and prisons. But the public should also have a right to see and know what goes on in these facilities, which is why our prisons should not be cut off from society. When police violence became an issue that received widespread attention, it was because members of the public, some who had witnessed that violence for years, finally had the technology to capture and disseminate information about it.

The FAMM campaign is also a reminder of the lack of diversity among elected representatives. Many people, if elected as lawmakers, might not need a visit to know what life is like inside a prison or jail. They would already know, from visits to family members, from hearing about it from loved ones, perhaps from being formerly incarcerated themselves.

Inattention to conditions in prisons and jails may also be a product of mass disenfranchisement. If lawmakers knew they would meet voters when visiting prisons and jails, or knew they would talk to voters who had previously been incarcerated, visiting facilities might be more akin to visiting other constituents entitled to representation.

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.

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