The Opposite of Harm Is Not Punishment

The opposite of harm is not punishment
Photo credit: Bruno Mallart

I’ve shared six pieces that my penpal Lacino Hamilton wrote and sent me (this is the one I typed out at the end of last month) over the past year and a half, and this piece, fully titled “We Cannot Shut Out People Who Are Suffering: The Opposite of Harm Is Not Punishment, It’s Education” focuses on why we must learn to care for those who have been harmed and those who committed harm through education. He and I agree on essentially every issue, so if you want to read more of his published work, this is a link to his articles on Truthout. As always, I have not edited or changed any of his writing for this post.

I am 44 years old. In prison lingo, where I have been detained the past quarter century, that makes me an “old head.” That is because most people that enter prison come disproportionately from the ranks of young men in their late teens and early twenties. As an old head who has spent a great deal of time self-educating and emphasizing that education and knowledge are the most powerful tools that we have available in engaging the struggle to make a better world, younger prisoners often seek me out for counseling or advice.

What I have learned from listening to hundreds of young prisoners is deeply disturbing. There has been two or three generations of children growing up in a world where they feel unsafe, afraid, vulnerable to indignity, depression, and trauma; and all kinds of intimate, invisible, and quiet forms of violence. Many children do not get to be kids and do kid things, do not get to make long-term choices about their lives because they are too busy trying to survive some of the most crucial social and political issues of our times. Which is too often minimized or omitted from processes of public recognition and redress—the pursuit of cheaper resources, and a “pay workers as little as you can get away with” business model, has masked the gutting of the industrial heartland and the sacrificing of the needs of millions of families.

Many people have heard about, possibly read about, or seen television programs that attribute the challenges of families to revive and rebuild post-industrialization to lack of imagination and hard work. The explanation, however, lies elsewhere. For decades now we have seen the conscious neglect and abandonment of families by state and federal government, the conscious neglect and abandonment of families by big business that would not be big without the cities and the structures and the workers that sustain it. Some of the latest evolutions of this is the calculated assault on unions, pensions, and public education. Such neglect and abandonment are dynamic factors in countless children’s illusive search for identity, purpose, and direction.

That is, young prisoners do not always possess the language to critically understand the larger forces at play, but they know they are living in a world where keeping themselves safe saps energy that could go toward self-enhancing activities. They have confided in me how degrading and infuriating it is when their exposure to a wide variety of economic and social violence is blamed on their alleged indifference, apathy, or racial stereotypes. The era of relocating factories abroad, chronic underemployment, millions of families possessing less than $400 in savings, has had a devastating impact on the quality of many children’s experience and overall upbringing.

The very systems that have neglected and abandoned millions of families now attempts to explain away the deep sense of not feeling safe in the world, often a belief of dying while young, as deviant values. There is crucial defects in such explanations: they leave out the equation for solutions two important elements—exploitation and dispossession. Such explanations do not incorporate an attack on the role of exploitation in the American capitalist economy nor an attack on the dominant control of monied forces in major government policy decisions and actions.

I hear stories all the time how at a relatively young age, sometimes as young as six or seven, that younger prisoners already had so many negative social experiences that they recognized society did not and probably never would work for them; and would not provide them with access to socially desirable rewards. It’s not that state and federal government, or that big business had ceased to function efficiently, but that they worked all too well in the interests of those at the very top. Together they have purposely created and maintained social and economic conditions that keep millions of families existing in a constellation of difficult, bleak, bad, tragic, and doomed circumstances.

As one young prisoner explained to me, society gave up on him long before he gave up on it: “I didn’t create being poor, the ghetto, an endless pit of obstacles.” He takes responsibility for the car he stole but still finds it humiliating and mortifying that society is punishing him for what he describes as figuring out early in life that the path ‘they’ sat upon him, at best, was going to lead to a dead end job.

Typically the young prisoners I counsel and advise are not passive victims; many of them understand that the consequences of breaking laws can be severe. However, as they internalize the societal cues that they are valued less than others, and as they realize that the social trajectory designed for them was leading to nowhere, many simply lost the incentive to adhere to social norms. They broke the law with reckon abandon. They did so with full knowledge that their actions would guarantee their failure. Their actions are rooted in an active rejection of the society that has rejected them. That disturbs me to the core of my being.

After listening to hundreds of young prisoners express a mixture of hopelessness, defiance, shame, anger, despair, hostility, social withdrawal, regret, and altered beliefs about the nature of the world, it is obvious to me that they are not incorrigible nor so called super-predators. We must ask ourselves, why expect persons to adhere to some social expectations, when the social contract of serving their best interests is broken?

Although it is not stated bluntly as official policy, providing unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and largest corporations, paid for partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; undertaking a radical program of financial, environment, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly for the middle classes and poor; seeking to add 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; and America ranking 18th out of 21 countries in terms of economic mobility—winners and losers have been picked; with millions of “losers” receiving prison sentences.

Defenders of the status quo point to America as the land of opportunity and the place where American dreams can come true because the poorest can aspire to the ranks of the richest. But today’s reality is very different, The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women. The American dream, for millions, is an American illusion. America now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries.

There is a growing correspondence between America having the highest income inequality among Western countries and having the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the similarities are not an accident. The two represent a deadly symboisis between the “free market” and prison. America is trapped in a quandary over what to do about people who have been excluded from the formal economy. And as economic exclusion multiplies, labor becomes more redundant, state institutions of social control replace institutions that previously served community needs. Public schools are one of the primary examples of community organizations that have gradually been transformed into institutions of confinement.

Economic and socially traumatized youth may engage in actions that are harmful to themselves and others, however, if we remind ourselves of our human agency and human capacity for working collaboratively to create change, there are alternative responses. Youth, at the earliest ages and in the earliest grades must develop the critical analytical tools to understand the larger economic and social forces at play. They must develop a sense of agency and capacity to interrupt and change oppressive patterns in the institutions and communities in which they are a part, and interrupt their own socialization within oppressive systems.

I realize that developing a social justice process in a society steeped in exploitation, steeped in exclusion, steeped in retribution, is no simple feat—but it is possible. The opposite of harm is not punishment, it’s education. Living under economic and socially violent conditions can make surviving a core concern around which else is organized. Youth need clear ways to define and analyze oppression so that they can understand how it operates at individual, cultural, and institutional levels.

America is headed in the wrong direction, as indicated by leading the world in incarceration. Rhetoric will not solve problems. Nostalgia for the good old days, whenever they were supposed to have been, will not do either. Big business, with the help of state and federal government, raped and pillaged the industrial centers of America for decades and now has walked away, abandoning the cities and the structures and the workers that sustained it. Education. Once people are aware, they will act, and act accordingly by putting their hands on some layers of power and showing people that daily life can be affected in positive ways.