My interview with Pete Brook continues, focusing on the obstacles that reform in America faces, and the outcomes without it….
Is the public attitude able to change towards the way we use prisons and who we imprison?
PB: What’s happened over the last 40 years is the biggest experiment in human incarceration in the history of humanity. So you’re asking me there if the biggest experiment in decarceration in human history might happen. I hope so. There’s so many things that plug into it.
To have less prisons you need to have different sentencing guidelines. I spoke to Brian Stephenson, who is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and he was the first guy I have ever spoken to who put a figure on it. He said, if there was the political will, you could reduce the American prison population by 50%. That would be over 1.1 million people, and he’s saying you could do that in the next six or seven years, if all your ducks were lined up, and he said you could do it without affecting public safety and it would be to release or not punish with custodial sentences people who were drug addicts or people who had been sentenced for property crimes or people who….all people had never committed a violent crime, you know.
But, to get there you’re asking for a fundamental change in people’s attitudes. The prison system is supported by an American culture because it backs up, and actually, it fulfils the attitudes of the people.
So as long as we’re puritan about drug use, and as long as drug use is criminalised and not treated as a public health issue then it will be difficult to change the system. Before people are willing to accept that the criminal justice system and policing generally impacts lower economic groups who tend to be minorities, then we’re not going to see a change, and I dare say that there are a lot of people in America that think that police interact with minorities only because minorities deserve it because that’s the way they behave. Those are racist attitudes. But they persist.
So I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I don’t even think it’s going to happen. Maybe as generations pass. I don’t think that’s as nearly an adequate answer as you would like.
People have to care about each other. It’s just really bizarre in a country that has professed Christian ideals that when it comes to the prison system people don’t seem to love their neighbour, they seem to hate their neighbour. They seem to have an incredible amount of indifference towards the fortune of their neighbour. I mean I’m not a religious person I’m not saying that you should let these people out because of Christian ideals. It makes it easy when I’m chatting to my parents because they’re catholic and I’m like Jesus is all about visiting people in prison and stuff. But it’s a very easy line of argument to use when you’re dealing with conservatives. You should care because that’s what you talk about elsewhere.
What are the consequences if there is no change or reform?
PB: I really don’t actually want to think about that because I might end up saying something quite extreme and I tend not to like hyperbole from others.
There’s no choice. The American public don’t have a choice. The American public have to at some point stop making prisons. Now, that might happen because they and their politicians decide to do so and have a go at implementing different types of solutions. But what also might happen is that the divisions will grow deeper and deeper.
In the past, there have been famous prison riots. I don’t think prison riots are going to happen. I think if there’s a rebellion it might happen on the outside. I don’t want this to happen, but if you push people harder and harder and keep them down and what I’m talking about here is essentially the wealth gap in America, access to reliable services.
If you talk about the American Dream, but in reality it doesn’t exist, because poor people stay poor and rich people get richer and there’s never been larger gaps between the rich and poor, eventually what it is that supports those systems will have to collapse. And, if you keep incarcerating people and destroying communities then I think those communities are going to get really annoyed and if they’re not represented by any politicians then I don’t know ….what becomes their options?
Maybe I’m just thinking about civil disobedience and rebellion because we’ve had a glimpse of it through Occupy.
I don’t know what the answer is. But either the American public takes responsibility for the broken system itself and deals with it with an informed and purposeful way, or they just ignore and it all collapses and everybody loses out.
You know what would be the best thing for prison reform? It’d be Justin Bieber. You know, I’m not precious about it. Any way you can get hard shocking facts into people’s heads is great. But so far, I think I’ve changed some minds. That’s good enough for me.
Follow Pete’s work at http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/