Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

Sticks and Stones

 

Sticks and stones

can only break

bones, but words

can shatter the

soul.

Adam Savage

Words that label can do awful, long-lasting damage. Many words and terms need updating as we become more aware of their effects. Other words, phrases and concepts need much new thought and introspection as the world changes.

In education, words are like rusty old ships covered in ugly barnacles that need to be retired. Other words need care and attention to be used with sensitivity. Students of all ages pick up labels put upon them—and sometimes live into them. Special ed can be loaded up with negative attachments. Many of my prison students had been labeled special ed and put in separate programs. It took a lot of work for them to realize that it had been an inappropriate placement and that they could be hard-working, competent students. The achievement gap has all sorts of negative attachments, and it is used most often about students of color. The implication is that students aren’t really capable, that they are always far behind, that closing the gap is difficult to impossible. If we change the term to opportunity gap, we not only see it in whole new ways, but it puts the problem on the system, on adults—and not on students who are behind and not achieving.

We use all kinds of words to describe kids who are in trouble with the law: juvenile delinquents, punks, hoodlums, gangbangers, troublemakers, and goons among them. Bryan Stevenson calls them children, not even teenagers. In 2012, he argued passionately before the Supreme Court against putting children in prison for life—and won, using the 8th Amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. Compelling arguments were made about the development of adolescent brains and diminished culpability as they grow and change. Calling young offenders children changes everything.

In the 1990’s the use of super predator, used to describe young people as stopping at nothing to do harm, leaked into the public. Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy,

“Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of “super-predators” with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remoreseless” children lead nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.” (1)

The 1990’s became a decade when mass incarceration increased dramatically, as did the life imprisonment of many children. Stevenson goes on,

“The predictions of “super predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super predator” theory to disclaim it.” (2)

Incarcerated adults fare no better with a long list of derogatory labels: criminal, crook, robber, gangster, thug, lowlife, villain, mobster, convict, offender and felon, among them. When President Obama visited a federal prison, he referred to the people inside as incarcerated citizens. That changes  perceptions too. Using the word citizen alters the image of an incarcerated person. It refers to someone who’s been locked up and is serving time for a mistake, but it doesn’t automatically infer that the person is bad. “We are all far more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Stevenson. Many people are now referring to people who are released from prison as returning citizens,which sounds far more positive and hopeful than ex-felon, which immediately conjures up the image of a bad person—or at least the suspicion that the person is still interested in bad behavior.

6,000 people are being released from federal prisons in the next months, almost all of them convicted of non-violent offenses. But, our prison practices have changed dramatically in the last forty years, and we are far more reluctant to release anyone who has committed a violent crime. The suspicion is that once a violent person, always a violent person. I’ve known far too many men who’ve committed violent crimes and worked hard to overcome their tendencies for violence and become kind and loving people. Given the 2.2 million people we have in prison in the United States suggests that we aren’t very hopeful that people can change and transform their lives.

We could think of violent behavior as hurting people who don’t deserve it. If we added the practice of inflicting unnecessary harm on people, then all kinds of things are violent: capital punishment, solitary confinement, imprisoning children for life and putting them in solitary confinement. Civil asset forfeiture, the police seizing people’s possessions with a mere suspicion that they might be guilty of a crime, is unnecessary and inflicts all kinds of harm on innocent people. That’s violent too, as is excessive bail and fines for already impoverished people. It seems violent to tear parents away from children for drug offenses and lock them away for decades, when the person, the family and the communitry as a whole would be far better served by mental health services. The draconian sentences that disable people when they are released, denying them the right to food stamps, housing, licenses and assistance when released from prison could be called violent. To create so many barriers for returning citizens to put their lives back to together is to say to them, “We’re going to make things as hard as possible when you get out. You will never pay your debt to society.”

Denying citizens the right to vote is violent and unnecessary. People who’ve served time in prison are denied the right to vote in many states. If someone has never had a birth certificate or cannot drive and manage to get some other kind of identification, a situation many poor people find themselves in, they lose their right to vote in too many states. They may have voted faithfully all their lives. They may have fought hard to win the right to vote. They may have been badly hurt in the struggle for votes. To then deny them the precious right of voting is violent. It says, “You aren’t part of us. You don’t matter.” It damages people’s dignity. That’s violent too.

Calling undocumented immigrants illegals or aliens—or even worse illegal aliens, puts them firmly in a place of other, not like us, not deserving of care and concern. Ethnic slurs deserve a whole other blog. I’m writing a week after the terrorist attacks on Paris, and already people are conflating Syrian refugees with terrorists, and steps are being taken to bar refugees from our shores. That’s answering violence with more violence, inflicting more terror and suffering on people who’ve already lost their country, their home and any security they might have had.

I’ve noticed that the people running for office who criticize polite and careful language are the first to loudly object if they feel disparaged or labeled unfairly. Being careful about our language makes us sensitive, gives our common life together more civility and harmony. One of the first realities of working in a prison was this simple truth: if we treat people with kindness and respect, they respond with kindness and respect. Being careful, polite, kind and respectful makes us more gracious and graceful, qualities we still have but may have forgotten. Language needs to be used carefully, and the words we use often need careful thought.  We should not be in the business of “shattering souls.”


  1. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, New York), 2014, p. 159.
  2. Ibid., p. 160.

A Father’s Restorative Justice

When I first read my friend Ron Simpson-Bey’s article, My Son’s 14-year-old Killer Deserved a Second Chance, it took my breath away. It is one thing to work for and advocate restorative justice for strangers, but it is quite another to want to give your son’s killer another chance. I was moved by several ideas put forth in his  article: the power of forgiveness and the good that comes when “victims,” are brought into the justice process; where he says we don’t make out communities safer by artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders;” and his emphasis on teenagers as children, not adults. The article makes me think about how white privilege makes many of us unaware of how so many families and communities of color are unheard and unconsidered every day. I am privileged to share Ron’s thoughts—as yet another Father’s Day approaches. I have included the full text of the article as it was published in The Root, below.


My Son’s 14-Year Old Killer Deserved a Second Chance

We don’t make our communities safer by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” That’s why I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son, and why we must insist on it for all children of color in the criminal-justice system.

By: Ronald D. Simpson-Bey | Published June 11, 2014

My only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 13 years ago. Ronald was 21. His killer was a 14-year old boy.

We were devastated, as any parents would have been. Despite this, my son’s mother and I did not want our son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison. We don’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. We also did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and community forever.

We recognize that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed our son was still a child. We wanted him to be processed in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically for children. We wanted him tried there and held there after his conviction to prepare him for release. The judge granted our wishes. The young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded and was released.

We were fortunate that we dealt with a prosecutor and judge who were willing to consider our wishes. As evidenced by the growing national support for restorative-justice programs, my family’s perspective is certainly not unique. The residents of the communities that are most impacted by both violence committed by young people and extreme sentences often recognize that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools and failing social services. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to jail.

But too often, the voices of poor people and people of color are silenced on these issues. Prosecutors and others in the criminal and criminal-justice systems are far more likely to prioritize the perspectives of individuals from wealthier, whiter communities. The only victims who are considered legitimate are those who are in lockstep with prosecutors looking to implement the harshest penalties possible. Victim services, financial resources and other types of support are often meted out accordingly.

Research had proved what parents already know: Children are still developing and possess tremendous capacity for change. We also know that they do not have the same capacity as adults to resist pressure from peers and adults, think through the long-term consequences of their actions or remove themselves from dangerous situations.

As we approach Father’s Day, I call on parents and other interested people from these communities to insist on having our voices heard. We must insist that police engage our communities fairly and stop targeting children of color. We must insist on accountability from juries who determine the fate of our young people.

And as states throughout the country reconsider their juvenile sentencing policies, we must insist not only that they eliminate life without parole but also that they replace it with reasonable alternatives that provide young people with a chance to pay for their mistakes and then later have fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us—especially children—possess the capacity to change. We are all deserving of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. This is a basic tenet of virtually every faith tradition, and one of the founding principles of our great democracy.

The child who killed my son is now a young man. I am not in direct contact with him, but we are forever bonded. My son and his sister had a child together, so my grandson is his nephew.

He has grown into a productive man because he had a second chance, which is all that any of us could want. Together, we can be sure that more young people get the chance they need and deserve.


Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a co-founder and board member of the organization Chance for Life.

This article was first published in the The Root, which aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by editorial staff.