I had three initial reactions, when met the inmates. The first, as most would expect, was one of fear. Questions, such as “What if there is a riot?” “What if I piss one of them off?” flooded my mind.
The second, was one of shock. The youth inmates were roughly the same age as us high school students, ranging from seventeen to nineteen.
The third, was one of curiosity. Why were all of the inmates men of color? I am not talking about most of the inmates. I am talking about all thirty or so.
I am beyond thankful for these initial reactions; furthermore, they have given rise too countless questions and insights ever since. The first is obvious, because who wouldn’t fear a “criminal?” If they are in a jail than we must perceive them as criminal, right? That’s how I perceived the situation for my entire life– criminals were the men and women attacking my father, a police officer. But are all of them actually a threat to society?
Let’s say for instance that I was caught selling weed by a police officer. I would probably be arrested– could be debatable due to my skin color and connections– but I would not go to jail in the interim before my court case, because I would be able to post bail. Many of the inmates on Rikers Island, which is in a sense a “holding pen” for incarcerated people awaiting trial, cannot meet the means of paying for their bail. So, these people committing non-violent crimes are being stashed away in prison with men and women whom have been accused of murder, rape, and the like, for the sole reason that they cannot afford to buy their way out of jail.
This leads me to observation number three. There must be some reason that African Americans are occupying such a staunch percent of prison cells. One key correlation must be race and socio-economic status. And when thinking about socio-economic status, one must analyze the family as a teaching unit. Moreover, children are a product of not only their parents but also their surroundings, and a child’s experiences and interactions during adolescent development play a critical role in their future behavior (observation two).
So, clearly there Is something going wrong with this system of justice. Justice or fairness clearly is not distributed equally across race and economic status. As my project expanded, I kept raising more and more questions. I began to look at prison inmates, beyond the mere title “criminal.” I was able to understand that they are just as much people as I am through conversations and activities. Just in many cases, they got dealt, as many would say, the bad hand of cards.
I want people to understand the complexity to the word “criminal” and to begin to evaluate the justice behind the criminal justice system. This is why I am in the works of creating a partnership between Penn State and Rockview Prison.