Why Does Incarceration = Dehumanization?
This past week, Santa Clara County Jail inmates, including at least one of my clients, engaged in a hunger strike demanding sufficient clothing, reasonably priced commissary, curtailment of solitary confinement and changes to classification procedures.
The courageous effort of these few hundred incarcerated men prompt memories of my jail visits and courtroom holding cell experiences with clients, flashes of the repeated erosion of their collective humanity by our machine of mass incarceration.
I see the two men in the holding cell handcuffed to one another, one urinating in a vile, metal toilet while the other looks away. I see the nearly dozen inmates linked together by waist chains paraded into the courtroom, a public display of their humiliation. I smell the pungent, gag inducing odor of the jail, a stench of food and confined human beings, a constant reminder of captivity. I feel my client's fatigue in the midst of trial, him forced by correctional officers to choose between sleep and his only outdoor time of week- offered to his unit only in the middle of the night.
I hear my client's gripes about a toothache that debilitates him but is neglected by jail staff. I see the countless bodies, shacked at the waist, feet and hands, ordered around jail hallways like cattle by correctional officers. I see those same bodies crammed into windowless holding cells, personal space a foreign concept. I see my client chained to the chair in the colorless, stake jail interview room, unable to even raise his hand to shake mine.
I don't see the sun. I don't feel the breeze. I don't hear the birds. I don't breathe the crisp California air.
Our country's jail and incarceration infrastructure is fundamentally inhumane and flawed. We all stand complicit in the cruel treatment of our fellow human beings, our correctional institutions a sad and ugly reflection of us.
Although I don't necessarily accept the premise of incarceration, let's assume we have a societal necessity to remove certain people from our communities and jail them for crimes they've committed. Why, then, do we have to deprive them of basic human dignities like privacy, personal space, clean clothes, sunshine, fresh air, edible food, books and family? Rather than build, fortify and rehabilitate our criminally convicted, our incarceration monster traumatizes, degrades and breaks our in-custodies, often leaving them unrecognizable and irreparably damaged. Every minute of confinement grinding their souls, squeezing away their humanity.
This morbid reality begs the question: Why does incarceration = dehumanization?