Burn it down and from the ashes we will heal …
Some may wonder how I can promote anti-racism, advocate for defunding the police, yet work toward prison reform instead of completely abolishing the carceral system?
As a forensic social worker, I honed my advocacy skills at the best public defender office in the country where I provided expertise as a mitigation specialist and sentencing advocate in Washington, D.C. I met some of the most traumatized, yet resilient Black boys, girls, men, and women at the hardest time of their lives. They were facing the loss of liberty, many of whom were children detained in adult jail. One of my first clients received a 19-year sentence when he was merely 19 years of age. He sits in a prison cell today. That cell and that system are supposed to equip him with the rehabilitative tools necessary to return to the District of Columbia as a “changed” man.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the education services, behavioral health programs and life skills that someone would need to overcome being abandoned as a child and becoming a man in the prison system will not be found in a cell. The trauma that is endured prior to entering the system, only to be exacerbated by the trauma experienced as an incarcerated, enslaved person in the prison system, is oftentimes insurmountable for many. Despite knowing these realities, police, prosecutors and judges continue to uphold racist practices and policies, rendering sentences that send a signal that Black lives and families do not matter and are dispensable. Each time a Black person is placed in a cell instead of in their community, we disrupt a family and interrupt generations to come.
Until the justice system is dismantled from the inside out, there will continue to be Black people incarcerated at disproportionate rates across this country, many of which are under the age of 25 years old. This is how I can, in good conscious, simultaneously advocate to defund police, rid prosecutors of their power, and reform prisons. I believe that if the various parts of the system are burned down, the abolishment of prisons will be the ultimate result. America’s need and desire to capture the minds and bodies of Black people will no longer be the priority. Unfortunately, this will not happen overnight or over the course of a few years.
As long as America prioritizes capitalism, prisons will always have a bed ready for the “have nots” and the privileges of white supremacy will continue to override humanity. As long as Black people are in prisons, there will always be a need to ensure that an anti-racist lens informs practices and policies with the hope of leading to conditions that can, at minimum, keep people alive and sane in order to fight another day toward their freedom.
I can be in support of my Black communities and schools being safer, but also advocate for police to be defunded. Investing in police and utilizing police to solve the ills created by a pro-slavery, pro-incarceration, and racist country is the easy remedy. One of the major expectations that I share with my students at the beginning of each semester is to ask “why?” Why is my client incarcerated, not what is he/she accused of, but why are they your client in the first place and what system failures led to your fates crossing paths? If we, as a society, would focus on the why, we will find ourselves focused on the root causation of America’s problems. Why do we think we need more police? Why do we think we need more prisons? Why are Black people the most impacted by the “injustice system”? The hard work is in addressing the root causes that will be revealed in the why. Are we willing to do the work?
Chapman is an adjunct faculty member at the Howard University School of Social Work, currently working on prison conditions and reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. Prior to, she managed a team at the DC Department of Corrections where she sought to bring human dignity to those incarcerated at the DC jail by way of transforming correctional culture and programs. Chapman spent a decade of her career at the DC Public Defender Service, where she specialized in advocacy for youth tried as adults. She serves on the board of the DC Justice Lab Advisory, on the Advisory Board for the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, and on the Executive Committee for the National Alliance of Sentencing Advocates & Mitigation Specialists, a section of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own and not those of her current or former employers.