Nina Greene, here! I facilitate a 10-week class for Honors College freshman around rights, incarceration and American values. Our class meets weekly to discuss these issues and tours Lane County Jail and Oregon State Penitentiary. As our class came to a close, I asked students to reflect on their experiences. Here is one student's reflection.
By Emma Rosen
"My interest in the incarceration system began during my Senior year of high school, specifically when one of the public forum Speech and Debate topics was “Private Prisons should be banned in the U.S.”. This was the first time I began to learn and research the various flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, which obviously turned into a sustained investment in the topic and a desire to know more. When I saw the description of our CHIP, it was the only one I wanted to be in, and I was not disappointed at all. This term has taught me not only all about the historical context of the prison system in America, but also given me the ability to better articulate and spread this information to others as well as make connections from these problems to values and systems that are reiterated throughout American culture and society.
One area I want to focus and reflect on in this writing is the connection between the stigma surrounding mental illness and how it overlaps with the prison system. I do not claim to fully understand how these two constructs interact with each other, but I am just going to use the option given that this writing can be a way to reflect on what we’ve learned. I think that the failure of prisons to provide health care, let alone mental health care, was a failure that was discussed multiple times in our CHIP and that I now have a much better understanding of. However I think that if we back up slightly we can see that someone who suffers from mental illness in the U.S. will face stigmatization long before enter the criminal justice system. The unwillingness to talk about or provide support to those facing issue is a problem that is not faced just by those with mental health problems, but any given issue someone might be facing. The stigma prevents those inflicted from reaching out and getting help, or even prevents it from being a public issue that government might offer support for at all. I was reminded of this during Gypsy’s presentation about women who were incarcerated, when she talked about how the majority of women who went to prison for violent crimes were victims of domestic abuse and had tried to reach out for support prior to the incident. In these cases, had the government done more to set up strong programs to help women and their children safely leave these situation, or have mental health programs that were accessible to lower-income people, many of these people's lives would not end in incarceration.
This ties in with another issue I have been thinking about a lot regarding its connection to the prison industrial complex. I touched on this briefly in class, but the differences between a hegemonic and despotic regime is undoubtedly connected to mass incarceration in the US. Specifically, the idea that individuals lose a tremendous amount of bargaining power with their employers when there is not a sufficient welfare state and social safety net outside of their employment. While the US is usually considered a nation with a welfare state, in class we see the rate at which people who are homeless are driven into the prison system either because they view it as the only way to gain food and shelter or because their very homelessness is criminalized. In this case, how can we consider social policy in the United States as sufficient.
Although throughout my time in this CHIP I have learned many concrete facts about the struggles someone who is incarcerated will face in the US, I have even more gained insights into broader issues with domestic policy in the US."