I don’t like prison; not for me, not for anyone. I imagine that probably sounds pretty cliche. Whaat!? A convicted felon who wants to do away with prisons? Shocking, I know.

Here’s the thing, it’s probably not as common as you’d think. In fact, most of the guys I come across in here tend to think prisons are a necessary feature of society. As a rule, we’ve all seen some pretty heinous things behind these walls. And before we came to prison. And during our childhoods. At some point, each of us learns the powerful lesson that, while punishment may not deter bad behavior, it certainly warrants it. As a colleague of mine says whenever this topic comes up, “there must be some consequences when people commit crimes”.

I couldn’t agree more, but when did punishment and consequence become synonymous? My belief is that retribution perpetuates the feelings of alienation, pain, and unworthiness that fuel most harmful acts we classify as crimes. Societally, we treat criminal acts as individual failures to live up to moral norms, but the truth is, when a person commits a crime, often the community has failed the person just as much as the person fails the community.

We’re all connected, and accountable to each other.

Progressive District Attorneys across the nation are starting to advocate for diversionary policies that look at the root causes of crime and funnel the people who commit harm into more effective remedies for their acts. So instead of sending people who are actively addicted into prisons, reinforcing their sense of shame, they send them into substance abuse programs. The programs work, and people are being healed.

I hope these success stories encourage us and challenge us. As encouragement, they should motivate us to extend these diversionary alternatives to incarceration for people with crimes other than drug possession. So-called criminals acts are actually unprocessed responses to trauma, and just about any act can be treated in ways that resolve the underlying issues.

The challenge is to find ways to implement these successful policies systemically, instead of relying upon progressive D.A.’s to buck a retributive criminal justice model. After all, even the most progressive, successful D.A. is only one election from being removed from office, possibly by a candidate with much more traditional beliefs about crime and punishment.

The goal is not to do away with consequences, but instead to realize that the need for consequences goes both ways. There are consequences when society fails to affirm the humanity of its members, and when members fail to respect the boundaries we need in order to feel safe. We can create institutions that operate under the premise that we are community before we are individuals, but the community is only as strong as the value we place on each individual. With imagination, we can envision a world in which the marginalized, poverty ridden swaths of our society are given the support they need to reduce their crime rates. After all, people, in the circumstances of the world they are born into, are not actually created equal. Instead, equality is something we must strive for, and work towards together.

Written by James King

James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

You may write to him at the following address:

James King CDCR # V-69030

San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

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