November 14, 2016

BETWEEN BARS | Just Visiting

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This week is National Prison Visiting Week, a new initiative led by the VERA Institute of Justice to open up prison facilities to local community members to come in and interact with inmates and correctional officers. The “opening” of the prisons provides the public an opportunity to see the effect that a local institution has on people, many who eventually reenter society (studies estimate 95% nationwide). It also seeks, I predict, to demonstrate that mass incarceration is not an abstract phenomenon but a condition that is as local as state prisons and county jails, which make up the bulk of the nation’s incarcerated. VERA’s president points out that it is in a community’s interest to know the people it sends behind bars, for they will not be hidden forever:

Prisons and jails, and the 2.2 million people in them, have been literally walled off from what was previously a deeply neglectful public. But no more. Justice reform belongs to everyone. Business leaders will meet people who will be part of their labor force. Teachers will meet people whose children they will teach or may already be teaching. Dads will meet dads; moms, moms; brothers and sisters will meet someone else’s siblings. That connection and understanding is the fuel for our movement. Perhaps the empathy we see here will teach us all a little something about the way forward.

Unfortunately, Auburn is not on the list of the 17 prisons that have signed on to participate in National Prison Visiting Week. However, after prying into the history of Auburn, I found out that the prison has been open to the public—in an unexpected way. On my way to the prison each week, I pass by a life-size standing statue of Thomas Mott Osborne. Osborne was a former mayor of Auburn and then appointed chairman of the State Commission of Prison Reform. In 1912, following his appointment, Osborne dressed up as an inmate and entered himself into Auburn’s records as Tom Brown, Inmate 33,333X. He stayed inside prison for a total of six days. During this time, he received no special treatment. He took notes of everything he observed. The Osborne Association, founded in his name, recalls how this experience informed and spurred his advocacy for prison reform:

He lived just as other prisoners did and left that harrowing experience committed to the goal of turning America’s prisons from “human scrap heaps into human repair shops.” Committed to the ideal of a criminal justice system that “restores to society the largest number of intelligent, forceful, honest citizens,” Mr. Osborne went on to become a progressive warden at Sing Sing, where the majority of his prisoners did not return to prison after release. He also established the Mutual Welfare League and the National Society of Penal Information, and later became known as the “pioneer and prophet of prison reform.”

It has been over 100 hundred years since Osborne’s clandestine investigation, which resulted in a publication of his notes that elevated his reputation as a leader in prison reform. We see reformers who are doing the same thing in our generation–for example, an undercover correctional officer at a private prison published a report months before the Obama Administration announced an end to private prison contracts. The Marshall Project provides excellent journalism, especially on developing reforms involving better treatment for juvenile inmates and limiting or even abolishing solitary confinement.

I felt compelled to share Osborne’s story this week because many people in the criminal justice reform community are rightly shaken up after this week’s election results. Reform, rehabilitation, and restructuring our criminal justice system is anathema to the simplistic and destructive call for “law and order” that the president-elect champions. Real change in this nation’s attitudes in policing and corrections requires a basic understanding of what kind of policies alleviate fear and which ones inflame and stoke these demons. No matter how good we get at throwing people behind bars, we must always think about the conditions of reentry. And to do that may necessitate a willingness to see and talk to incarcerated people. At the very least, a visit may provide this opportunity.