Prison Reform: Moving Beyond the Scott Sisters

Posted on March 24, 2011

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Author: Stan Moody

Shortly before the Scott Sisters, Jamie and Gladys, were released from prison in Mississippi in early January, 2011, I was a bit player in the drama by efforts to have Jamie apply for a pass for me to visit as her pastor. Conversations with a number of happy, accommodating bureaucrats within the system, all of whom claimed not to have heard of the Scott Sisters, led to a dead end as the paperwork for my visit fell through the cracks.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, of Syracuse University, published an article on January 9, 2011, suggesting that cases like the Scott Sisters tend to take the focus off of prison reform by virtue of a false comfort that we can move on once a case is solved.

His reference point was the December 2010 Georgia Prison Strike, where prisoners participating in the work stoppage were beaten with hammers. One prisoner reportedly is wheelchair-bound with brain damage. Dr. Boyce was lamenting the shift from reform to the feel-good outcome of the Scott Sisters.

Dr. Boyce speaks to the consciences of those for whom prison reform seems a matter remote from our pedestrian lives on the outside. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “The United States puts more people in prison than any country in the world, and most of us are only God’s grace or one bad situation away from ending up in the big house.”

That is particularly true of black men, one of every three of whom is destined to spend time in state prison, federal prison or local jails.

Dr. Boyce points to the Jim Crow culture in America that consigns both innocent and guilty black men, through incarceration, to a future devoid of access to jobs, housing, voting and education.

Along with numerous other writers, I have written several articles on the Jim Crow laws legally resurrected through our criminal justice system. A recent measure passed into law in Florida, for example, would make it more difficult for non-violent offenders to vote after serving their time. Inasmuch as African-Americans and Hispanics comprise nearly 70% of incarcerated prisoners, I dubbed this measure the “Republican Majority Assurance Act.”

“In our exuberance over the release of Jamie and Gladys Scott,” Dr. Boyce cautions, “let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of other men and women who are incarcerated but don’t have vocal and dedicated advocates on the outside; symbolism only gets you so far.”

He goes on to point out that our prisons are living testimony to legalized slavery, benefiting companies like Nike, Dell Computers and McDonald’s, who take advantage of prison labor to keep their wages down. “Being enslaved by another person is not nearly as scary as being enslaved by corporate greed designed to show no mercy.”

Dr. Boyce raises a key issue that has haunted all of us who campaign for prison reform. That is, that focus on individual cases, while offering tangible, concrete examples that feed our passion for excitement, tempts us to take our eyes off the systemic cultural problems that created and sustain this mess.

I would add one thought. Focus on individual cases too easily permits the uninformed and uninitiated widely to cast aspersions on a criminal justice system that would be little less corrupt if it were fully staffed by human rights activists. Either/or dichotomies fall apart when tested in the intricacies of individual cases as they wind through the courts.

Injustice is rarely intentional. Most often, it is dispensed by people convinced they are doing the right thing and will move Heaven and earth to defend their actions after the fact.

Thus, relief from judicial error has rarely emerged from within. That is why consistent and relentless pressure from the outside is critical. Bear in mind that the most effective change of late has come from the world of science – DNA.

Thanks to Dr. Boyce for reminding us to keep our eyes on the big picture.

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