As Governor Rauner’s appointed commission continues to work on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, I am doing what I can to keep one portion of the prison population in the conversation: those serving very long or life sentences. Given the U.S. penchant for retributive justice, I have no doubt that some will dismiss my pleas for those accused of violent offenses, but even if one’s family has not been touched by the court or prison systems, I think we can all concede that even prisoners are someone’s sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters.
I have been visiting people behind bars for over 20 years and writing to many of them for almost that long. I attempted to visit three people I know who are housed in Menard Correctional Center, five and a half hours of driving from Chicago, twice in the last three weeks. Both of my attempts were thwarted by a “lockdown.” There’s no question that security issues arise, particularly in maximum security prisons like Menard, but the frequency with which Menard resorts to lockdowns (far more often than the other max prisons in Illinois) would suggest that something is awry. Those I know inside suggest that the reasons for locking down the facility are often avoidable. And even those instances when an altercation occurs or homemade weapons are found are usually in particular buildings and among those inside who haven’t yet chosen to modify their behaviors or abandon gang activity. Two of the three men I had planned to visit have been “locked up” for over 15 years each and have never acted out or received any sort of “ticket” for a violation of prison rules. By all accounts, their behavior has been exemplary since they landed inside. This, by the way, does not excuse their choices prior to incarceration (a point with which I know they’d agree), but they have worked, reached out to fellow inmates, and found numerous ways to try to improve themselves and the lives of those they know, inside and outside of the prison walls. When a lockdown happens, these men are also prohibited from movement to jobs or recreation, phone calls home, and, of course, visits.
When my plans to visit were obstructed this week by a lockdown, I had five phone calls to make to cancel train tickets, hotel, car rental, and so forth. I can only imagine how lockdowns affect family members who have extremely limited resources, minimum wage jobs, medical infirmities, or children to consider. I was going to visit one man on his birthday, certainly a day when most of us would like to feel loved or at least remembered. I had planned to visit another friend who has been going through a difficult time facing his life sentence without chance of parole (something I hope others can appreciate; an issue to be discussed in a future blog). I had hoped to offer him a listening ear, a word of hope and an embrace of compassion. But no!
The Department of Corrections continues to insist on sending prisoners as far as they can from their homes and all contact with loved ones, including their children. And we wonder why people act out. If all hope has been removed, what does a person have to lose? If the simple pleasure of hugging a loved one or sitting across the table and having a civil discussion with someone who cares is removed consistently, by distance and by lockdowns, how does one find motivation to turn his/her life around?
We cannot continue to throw people away because they have harmed others. Restorative justice suggests that there is a better way. We call those convicted of crimes to accountability for what they’ve done, and we work with victims (also entirely forgotten and neglected by the system), prisoners and their respective families and communities to begin to heal the harm done by crime. Warehousing people and isolating them in every possible way harms people further, jeopardizes future generations, marginalizes communities and continues to drain the Illinois budget. Bottom line: prisoners are people too, despite the rhetoric of pundits and “tough on crime” advocates!
Find out how you can become a better advocate for the incarcerated through the Lewis University Prison Ministry Leadership Curriculum.