I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hitting Bottom

Hey friends. I've been quiet for the past week in part because I'm traveling right now, in part because I had to put my laptop in the shop this weekend, and in part because most everything I know that's happening is going on behind the scenes.

But I'm trying to keep up with things. Governor Brewer's schedule for the week of June 15 is here, by the way.

In the meantime I've been reading Vikki Law's book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. It's very powerful, not only as a testament to women's capacity to resist oppression, but also as a reference to legal cases, state and federal legislation, and national resources regarding women in prison. It's thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and inspiring. Despite overwhelming odds, brutal retaliation, and being in a position of apparent total powerlessness, these women that society has written off have been fighting for themselves and each other.

Still, it's discouraging to see how long certain issues have been identified yet not resolved - like the sexual abuse and exploitation of female prisoners. I'm not inclined to think you can ever assure an imprisoned woman her safety even under the "best" of circumstances - anyone who does is deluded. Prisons can't operate without violence.

I know a lot of loving parents believe that their drug-addicted child is better off in prison than on the streets. From my experience, though, I have to say that anyone's child is better off in treatment or supported housing than in either the streets or prison, and we should never settle for less. Some families have just been convinced by gurus of 12-step programs and the professional addictions field that advocating for their child with the courts is "enabling" them to stay sick in their addictions, and teaching them to expect to be rescued when they get into trouble.

Well, thank god for my friends and family coming to the rescue when I've made mistakes; I think I learned far more from their love and forgiveness than I ever might in a prison. I know people who think that prison did them some good - I'm not one to speak for their experience. But I believe it's a mistake to assume that when a person develops emotionally and spiritually while imprisoned, the term or conditions of imprisonment were necessarily "good" for them. Many people transcend their incarceration, emerging into freedom as empowered, mature, and forgiving human beings despite enduring years of societal neglect and brutality - like Leanne.

I used to hear the same kind of thing about homelessness, how it could actually be a good thing to happen to a person because such desperation is necessary for some addicts and alcoholics to "hit bottom". Some people used to argue that slavery was good for Africans, too, because it brought them Christianity. Somehow the logic doesn't work when I try to see either argument through, regardless of who it is that makes the case.

Some families take heart in the notion that there's "treatment" available in prison. They are led to believe this by various government entities, not all of whom tell the whole story. According to SAMHSA, there are substance abuse treatment services available in 94% of federal prisons, 56% of state prisons, and 33% of local jails. They don't specify what percentage of the prison population actually has access to those services, however (this report from the National Institutes of Health says that less than 10% of prisoners get the treatment they need), or whether any of those programs are specifically designed for women, trauma survivors, or people who are dually diagnosed with addiction and a major mental illness, like Marcia was. Generic substance abuse treatment just doesn't cut it for most.

So, it means little to me to be told there are "treatment services" available in a given prison or jail setting. For all I know that just means an AA meeting once a week, or a Sunday prayer service for addicts. If such resources are available to some people who can put them to good use, more power to them. But that's the exception, not the rule. I thought Americans decided awhile ago that prison wasn't for treatment or rehabilitation; it's for bad people who need to be punished. Somewhere along the way it became an okay place to send sick people, too.

Some of us do "hit bottom" and find sobriety on our way out; we are the fortunate few. The problem is that most of the time "hitting bottom" involves crash landings, and sometimes the wreckage becomes a fireball before anyone can make it out alive. Addiction and alcoholism wreak such havoc in people's lives, and come replete with their own forms of torment like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, cirrhosis, brain damage, and the profound despair of a loneliness that no other soul can touch - not as long as the the drug is there. College, career, family, friendships, identity, self-respect - everything a person works for or values can be lost, sometimes irreparably. Addicted and alcoholic women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and otherwise victimized than those who are not. They also often end up in jail for their boyfriends' crimes.

I don't know why we think addicts need any more punishment than they already endure.

We need to stop fooling ourselves: beginning with the recovering community: incarceration is not a therapeutic complement to the kind of trauma an addict - and their family - has already gone through, no matter how many exemplary cases are held up to assert otherwise.

As long as we have prisons, we have a minimal responsibility to assure that those we warehouse there are safe, as healthy as can be, and treated with respect for their dignity and humanity. Before we spend all our energy, resources, and political clout fighting for more treatment services in prison, though, let's make sure there are also options for people on the outside. The same goes for mental health treatment. We created prisons to punish people; they are terrible places. Judges shouldn't have to send sick people away to one in order to make sure they get care.

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