Imagine the tens of millions of years that American prisons have stolen, woven back into society.
February 19, 2020
Ricardo Ferrell is 61 years old and has been incarcerated since before I was born. He was put away in 1981, and I was born in 1982. When he was taken inside in the 1980’s, he says, it changed his sense of time. Everything slowed to a snail’s pace. “Each day, it seems like it’s taking forever for that day to go by,” he says of his time at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Michigan. “It’s hard to describe the same thing over and over and over,” he said.
Ferrell is a journalist whose work appears at Voice of Detroit, among other independent outlets. Most of his family has passed on, but he has a brother, who is now 41. They were born on the same day, October 12, but 20 years apart.
Ricardo used to braid his brother’s hair when he was a toddler. He was three years old when Ricardo went in; now he has a grandson. Ricardo sees it all as a marker of time passing, but understands that the world outside has its own pace. “The world is steady popping,” he says. “It’s not going to wait for Ricardo.”
It’s hard to measure how much time American prisons have stolen, how many relationships have been held captive. While writing this essay, I tried to calculate a precise number of years, but found a number elusive. I reached out to the Prison Policy Institute, which told me that no such number had been calculated, to the best of their knowledge. When I crunched the numbers myself using the institute’s own data, however, my crude calculation easily went into the tens of millions of years.
This may feel like an abstract exercise, but to me it is not. The incredible scale of these numbers help to put in perspective the limits of our own imaginations. The amount of time can only be understood in geological time or cosmological time: it is not compatible with the ways that we think about or understand time in our daily lives. Nor is it compatible with how humans typically solve problems, through policy, plans, and timelines. A figure this large requires us to uncage our imaginations and think inter-generationally, in terms of eons rather than years.
Ebony Underwood, an advocate for children of incarcerated people, put it well when I asked her about her visits with her father. “Life is made up of moments and memories,” she said. “I cherish the time.”
As bare in imagination as the carceral system is, the worlds we create to replace it can be that much more expansive and plural. As capricious as the carceral system is with time, a future without it should honor and cherish the time we can spend in relation to one another. We could counter the theft of relationships and connections with a set of possibilities that are rooted in connectedness.
Mariame Kaba talks about how “we must create the conditions for dismantling prisons, police, and surveillance,” and points to the work of pre-figuring the future we wish to live in. In this view, the work of dismantling the carceral system is tied to our ability to reimagine our social relationships. Others have invoked imagination, fiction and world-building as the same project—as collective organizing and political change. “All organizing is science fiction,” Waleedah Imarisha writes in the introduction to Octavia’s Brood, an anthology named for the science fiction writer Octavia Butler.
Where does the time that is taken go? In my mind’s eye, I picture all of it trapped in some dystopian machine, swirling in a citadel with cascading, telescopic sets of rotating towers, on a cliff at the end of everything.
This, I imagine, is where the possibilities of relationships are enclosed. They stretch across years, silhouettes threading end to end like caterpillars, the visualization of collective, shared days taken. The possibilities are jammed there between enormous gears and squeezing through creaking levers. And in one of those endless, labyrinthine, rooms, I imagine, is a gear we can jam to crash these towers, to take us all home together, to whatever new worlds we’ve built for each other.
The prison system was itself one of many possibilities. The American penitentiary system was born of social optimism, writes Stuart Grassian, a psychologist who conducted interviews with hundreds of survivors of solitary confinement. It was in this spirit that the first large penitentiaries were created: under the belief that people would fundamentally transform if “removed from the evils of the larger society.”
But hiding and isolating trauma created by other intersecting oppressions makes everyone less safe and less whole. Penitentiaries are not a source of safety. Safety, wrote the urbanist Jane Jacobs in 1961, is “kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people.”
After surviving a sexual assault, the poet and essayist June Jordan questioned the primacy of isolation and independence in American life. Looking to her neighbor, whom she couldn’t turn to for help, she wrote, “what jeopardized his and my safety, and our happiness, was the absence of connections between us and the absence of a sharing, a dependency between the two of us.”
Our ability to dream fictional alternative futures provides a spiritual balm to what currently exists, which can feel crushing and depressing.
At Rikers, I visit a man whom I’ll call J., whom I had got in contact with when he was incarcerated at Sing Sing. J. is seriously mentally ill, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia since he was 16. Now 39, he is addicted to crack, and possession got him locked up for a year and a half. While his conviction was for possession of crack cocaine, a cursory conversation with J. would reveal to anyone he encounters that he doesn’t have the ability to sell narcotics, or anything else, in any organized manner; his thinking and behavior are disordered, his life skills have been frayed from spending a majority of life in facilities.
He was released in September and given housing through the New York State Office of Mental Health. When I visit his address in the Bronx, no one answers. Only later do I consider that he may have been picked up on a parole violation and brought to Rikers.
I visit J. at Rikers. We speak for an hour and a half about his addiction, about his worldview. He tells me he “turned himself in” after skipping out on a rehab program that was part of his parole requirements. He skipped the program to panhandle and secure and smoke crack. In jail, he tells me over and over again that he smokes crack because he’s dealt with incredible pain and hurt from which he doesn’t think he can heal. He refers, over and over again, to his drug habit as the only thing that can heal him. His addiction seems to have merged with his paranoid delusions.
J. tells me he wants to disappear into a “spirit realm,” that disappearing into this spirit realm is the only way he can think of to escape the reality of jails, psychiatric institutions, and emotional trauma. He tells me he’s been communicating with Satan, who has been speaking to him for years and promising to transport him to this spirit realm.
When I ask whether he thinks his schizophrenia is part of the reason he thinks these things, he says he hopes not. This fantasy is what he has; it’s a hopeful narrative that keeps him motivated, as dark and unhealthy as it appears to outsiders like me.
While we are speaking, he smiles and interrupts himself mid-sentence to point out a baby behind me. I turn and see an infant being held and embraced by another incarcerated man, as the child is passed gently over the thin, six-inch divider from the visitor’s side of the table to the incarcerated side. That is a cute baby, I say.
I’ve lost sleep since visiting J., and will likely continue to. I have trouble organizing my worldview into something coherent and hopeful, with a sense of fairness and justice, when I encounter those I cannot meaningfully help.
J. has a troubled relationship with his parents. He lacks a network of people who could help him, and does not have clear options to deal with the intersecting problems that make his independent living nearly impossible. Like many, he cycles through jails and prisons, where his suffering is made invisible to potential neighbors or subway straphangers. The carceral system is a non-solution that cloaks problems ignored by the city and the state and federal government, which promised to fund community-based solutions for people like J. when psychiatric institutions were emptied in the late 20th century.
The logic of the carceral system hinges on a refusal to think long-term, or to field possibilities. It promotes isolation, masking intergenerational cycles of trauma and healing and survival that produce each of us.
This scarcity-driven, short-term thinking can weave itself into policy: a frantic, false urgency emerges, and the sense of the possible calcifies into a set of choices that reinforce the problems they seek to resolve.
In New York City, when legislators, non-profits, and reformers pushed to build new jails to replace the ones on Riker’s Island, where J. now stays, they met fierce resistance. The proponents of the new jails asked: but where will you put the incarcerated? A question we should ask is: where will you put whom? Who are these people whose incarceration is inevitable?
The four proposed new jails—towering, spacious, well-resourced—are not for the formerly incarcerated people who have already suffered, or even those currently trapped on Riker’s Island. They are for future people. The city is building jails for people who will be arrested seven years from now, after a cascade of institutions have failed them, and a cascade of future things have gone wrong.
Some of the people who would be first trapped in these buildings have not yet graduated from grade school. If the buildings remain for “generations,” as the Mayor suggested they would, some of the people who would be caged inside have not yet been born. Neither, potentially, have their parents.
The political will to close Rikers, proponents of new jails argue, is part of a once-in-a-generation alignment of electoral power and reform-minded energy. The plan was presented as a portal to safety that is quickly closing, which, if not accessed, will leave neighbors and friends and loved ones stranded inside a Bosch-like torture chamber.
But bursts of protest against the construction of the new jails exist, on their own, to counter this logic of ephemeral political will. The activists railing against the plan have sustained and organized energy against incarceration beyond what seemed possible before. The portal of possibility is not closing. It could be opening to a different sort of society.
Advocates of the new jails I’ve spoken to have worked inside them for years, have alleviated immeasurable pain and suffering, and operate with the best of intentions. But the formal web of prisoner advocacy has predetermined limits.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore portrays the non-profit arena that exists outside the jail and prison system—which, consciously or not, relies on it—as a space where imaginations can be clamped. “In a sense,” Gilmore writes, “the professionalization of activism has made many committed people so specialized and entrapped by funding streams that they have become effectively deskilled when it comes to thinking and doing what matters most.”
As the carceral system removes possibilities, we should imagine a system that does the opposite—a possibility engine. Inside are brighter, more interesting worlds. Worlds where harm, however awful, can be seen as a space where questions can emerge, rather than end. Where we can fulfill, rather than defer, the relationships we wish we had with each other.
A world where people can experience the full spectrum of rage and sorrow when they are harmed, without having those feelings used as justification for state-run isolation. It means, to use a phrase spoken in the Book of Joel, to “restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.”
There is no one solution or utopian paradigm; only a commitment to myriad possibilities, and a desire to alter the material conditions of our planet to welcome these possibilities.
Transformative justice is one way of thinking through this future. It is a set of grassroots mediation practices that seek to address the root causes of harm, in lieu of state intervention, and transform the conditions that produced it. Practitioners sometimes observe that harm is rooted in past trauma, or social and material conditions. The goal is to acknowledge those conditions, so that the person who has harmed can see their behavior as harmful and reduce the chance they will harm again.
Practitioners of transformative justice often draw on the community capacity to resolve problems. For some, these include strategies hidden inside our own family histories, brought forth or rediscovered through intentional community-based practice.
These processes are imperfect and often break down, as does the willingness of participants. No grassroots practice can claim to immediately erase the inequalities of class and race that lead to trauma, nor put people into community who refuse to be. Nor is transformative justice a mirror image of the prison system that can be propped up in its place, as it is sometimes rhetorically framed. But it’s a commitment to a set of questions about humanity and interpersonal harm that is more compelling than any design of any jail or prison.
Nearly 20 years ago, the non-profit INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence put together a working group called Creative Interventions, in collaboration with the abolitionist collective Critical Resistance and other groups based in the Bay Area. The goal was to pool together the work of anti-violence organizations already trying to address harm, outside the system of policing, courts, and cages.
The resulting lessons, available as a toolkit on their website, draw on the lived experiences of women of color who, for a variety of reasons, needed alternatives to the criminal justice system as a tool to deal with violence. “It invites us,” the author writes, “to involve even those who harm us as potential allies in stopping that harm and as active partners in deeply changing attitudes and behaviors towards a solution to violence.”
People I’ve spoken to who’ve led transformative justice processes, and others I’ve spoken to who’ve run interventions for perpetrators of domestic violence, speak, wistfully, of the things that go wrong, of the people unwilling to engage, of people who persistently, frustratingly harm. When things go smoothly, one practitioner says, it’s like a unicorn emerging from the forest. But when you consider those who’ve changed, grown, developed new muscles for caring, it can be hard to understate the importance of trying.
There will be many ways of thinking outside the carceral system, ways of minimizing the material conditions that breed trauma and respond collectively to social problems. How powerful would it be if this way of thinking was embedded into the ethos of our species?
Imagine a planet, somewhere out in space, where life has evolved much as ours had; its society has its own starts and stops, its own frictions and social ills. But instead of siphoning out those who harmed and do harm from the fabric of its society, its people alchemize pain into healing. When one person harms another, there is a collective responsibility to reshape the world—its resources, its culture, its logic—so that harm is not reproduced. On this world, when problems arise, the painful fissures are seen as spots to be nurtured, as laboratories for healing and solutions.
Imagine those tens of millions of years that were taken, woven back into society. If our lives are made up of moments and memories, how much could the people of this world benefit, having those moments intact for eons, alongside all the failures, emotional lessons, and worlds that they gestate?
If this was a science fiction story, the twist might be that some species out in space implemented this thinking long ago, created a more heartfelt ecosystem than ours, perhaps evolved a society that, from a distance, now gazes at our own from some distant galactic heaven, looking to guide us home.
But we are here, on Earth, making decisions for and about each other. How much more would we all be if we kept our moments together, where they belong?