The Christian Science Monitor

Can America move beyond mass incarceration? (audio)

Judge Marilyn Cassidy addresses participants in the Human Trafficking Specialized Docket about their progress in the program at the Cleveland Municipal Court on March 27, 2017. In Episode 6 of "Perception Gaps: Locked Up," our reporters explore alternative models of incarceration in America, including treatment programs, trauma centers, and restorative justice models. Source: Ann Hermes/Staff/File

Many Americans question the complex role of the U.S. justice system. And over the course of our podcast, “Perception Gaps: Locked Up,” we’ve taken a hard look at what we think we know about who we lock up and why, how much we spend on this massive institution, and the people and communities the system has left behind.

Today, in the season’s final episode, we ask: How do we chart a way forward?

Answers to this question, understandably, vary. Some believe we should follow the example of other nations that operate more humane, rehabilitative prisons. Others say we should adopt models that help reconcile people who have caused harm with those they’ve hurt. Still others want better support for communities, including survivors of crime and the formerly incarcerated. And some want a justice system without prisons and jails at all.

But the key, they all say, is a willingness to imagine other ways of pursuing justice – instead of relying so heavily on incarceration. 

“We really need to think outside the box,” says Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied justice systems around the world. “We need to shake up our ideas about prison, and we need to think about what really builds safe communities.”

Note: This is Episode 6 of Season 2. To listen to the other episodes and sign up for the newsletter, please visit the “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” main page. 

This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.


Disclaimer: Just a warning. This episode contains descriptions of drug use and violence, including gun violence and sexual assault. Please be advised.


Samantha Laine Perfas: The U.S. justice system is complex. Many of us have ideas about its processes, its power, and its pitfalls. And over the past five episodes, we’ve taken a hard look at what we think we know about who we lock up and why; how much we spend on this massive institution; and the people and communities the system has left behind. 

Today, in our final episode of the season, we ask: How do we chart a way forward?

This … is Perception Gaps. 

[Theme music]

I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, and this is “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” by The Christian Science Monitor.

[Theme music]

Before we dive in, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who’s joined us on this journey so far. We’ve loved having you along! And we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us on your podcast app or wherever you’re listening. We can’t wait to hear your thoughts. 

If you’re just joining us now, or want to learn more about the show, you can find everything at 


I want to start with a big takeaway we’ve had from this season. It turns out that a lot of the issues facing our justice system today can be traced back to our tendency as a country to turn to incarceration as a solution to our problems. 

But over the past couple decades, policy experts, advocates, and the public have started to realize that maybe locking people up the way we have is not the only, or the best, way to go. There’s been growing support for justice reform. And the issue – maybe surprisingly – is one of the very few in America today that isn’t split strictly along partisan lines. 

Michele Deitch: There’s not that much polarization on criminal justice reform issues. The left and the right have long advocated for changes in this area. I think that there is support for evidence-based approaches that are effective and that don’t harm people. And that also ends up costing less money, while getting better results. 

That’s Michele Deitch. She teaches social policy at the University of Texas at Austin. We’ll

Reuben Miller: Our first response has been to call the police. Our first response has been to lock somebody up and away from us who's caused us harm. But, ‘What works?’ is a very important question. What’s the best way to address the harm that’s been done? Are there options beyond just sending someone to prison? My name is Reuben Miller. I teach at the University of Chicago, in the School of Social Service Administration.Reuben: Some theories of crime suggest that people commit crimes when they lack material resources, that many crimes are related to poverty. The lack of ability to move up and through the world, in part produces lots of the crime and criminality that we see. It produces the need for an illicit economy – drug dealing, theft, even crimes of violence, because of the kinds of tensions that we see when people are rendered and stay poor.And then on the back end, so someone gets arrested, they spend some time in jail or prison, they’re released. And they’re not able to participate in the formal labor market anymore, because of the thousands of laws and policies that bar people from whole categories of employment. And so the relationship happens both before and after release.Reuben: Crime also comes from places of pleasure. Some people commit crimes, I believe, because they want to. And so white collar criminality, sex offenses, all these sorts of things need a regulatory mechanism. The question is, is that mechanism the prison?Sam: Does the current structure of the justice system take into account the root causes of crime? And why or why not? Reuben: No, I don’t think so, because for some of those, the way that we’ve engineered society contributes to how and why people commit crimes. And so I think it implicates us. And then some of the reasons that people commit crimes aren’t easily explained away. And so some of the complexity contributes to how and why we respond to crime and criminality when we see it.Stacey Borden: How can we even imagine building a world without prisons? What does that mean? How can we hold ourselves accountable for the harm that we’ve caused in our past? And how can we help another individual heal from the harm that was caused to them and the harm that they continuously cause? Because hurt people hurt people. My name is Stacey Borden. I’m formerly incarcerated. I’m a licensed clinician. I work for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.Romilda Pereira: I think for me it was anger management. My first arrest was out of Madison Park High. I was 14 years old. I was acting out, rebelling out of anger. I grew up in an abusive household. So for me, that’s how you handled situations. And I was in and out of court and through that, you know, charges started piling up. It just kept going. And then you aged out, and it’s like you graduated – from there to county to state prison. Stacey: For me, you know, I suffered from sexual assault very early, and I just didn’t know that I was suffering mentally. And I started using drugs early. And my first arrest, too, was possession with intent to distribute cocaine. And cocaine for many, many years, was my friend. I just felt like I could only function in that manner. I really didn't have a voice. And so I kind of lived in darkness for many years.Stacey: I just didn’t know how to process the sexual assault, and not one person in those courtrooms – not one attorney, probation officer, judge – asked, ‘What is wrong? What can we help you with? Why do you keep doing the same thing over and over expecting something different?’ Stacey: Had my rapist had the opportunity – you know, if I had the opportunity today to have him stand in front of me, imagine what that would look like. Imagine him hearing in my pain. Imagine me telling him I don’t want him to go in and suffer. Imagine having that type of conversation. And allowing him to express his own pain.Stop perpetuating the idea that they’re just so no good that we’re going to bury you under the jail. How is that justice?Romilda: Prison and jail is never the answer. I’m against anyone who’s going to commit a crime. But I’m also going to tell you, those people need help. You know, they’re sick. Something has happened. They’ve been touched before. So let’s build a treatment center so that person gets help, so that person doesn’t come back out and rape someone else. Because we all know it continues to happen. I’m not going to tell you to come in here and give everybody ice cream and lobster. But let me tell you how we can reimagine our communities. Let me tell you how we can reinvest in the people, where we don’t have to have a prison. Our plans that are in place now are not working. So it’s time for us to try something new.Reuben: I think whether or not you think that prison abolition is the way to go, the exercise of reimagining how justice should work is a necessary exercise. The abolitionist position forces us to reimagine what the world would look like without jails or prisons. It forces us to think about who should respond to questions of violence if we didn't have police. It forces us to ask what the most appropriate way to respond to questions of material need would be if the police weren't the first responders. It asks: What do we do with people who’ve harmed us if we don’t send them to jails or prisons? Amber-Rose Howard: Our mission is to reduce the number of prisons, jails, and detention centers – so all cages – in the state of California, and to make sure that we’re spending on what we envision a public safety model should look like, which would center care and respect the humanity of people. It would not be coming from a punishment lens, but from – from a people lens. Amber-Rose: We can transform the way that we look at accountability by putting dollars into health and human services, resources in communities, so that harm is not perpetuated. So maybe it looks like a cap on sentencing. Maybe it looks like working toward emptying prisons and rebuilding different kinds of spaces where community can help center the healing of folks. Shift the money away and build out a different model. Amber-Rose: So I’ll say this: I would love for that to happen. I’d love for thousands of people to be released tomorrow. Because I know thousands of people who are connected to people who are incarcerated and just want their loved one home. Abolitionists are saying, we should release people. And we’re saying that we know that that is not going to happen overnight. We have to be able to get victories in reform that would be able to build toward prison closure. And we know that that has to sometimes happen incrementally, obviously, and history proves that. But we want to get to a space where we don’t rely on the system of corrections to run public safety. So – so yes, I think it’s both of those things.  Sam: Do you think prisons are necessary at all? Do we need them? Kevin Garrett: I – yes. That’s not an emphatic yes, I mean, but, yes. As bad as my experience was in prison, I also saw a lot of individuals who didn’t have a substance abuse issue, who didn’t have a mental health issue. I mean, they came from good families and stuff like that. And they were – well, they did horrible things. And for individuals like that, in an ordered society, yes. We have to have that.Kevin: Coming back into society was, for me, absolutely the most difficult part. Of course, there’s a huge relief to be out of that oppressive and traumatic environment. But when you get out, you’ve got a whole different set of challenges, housing being the number one. Housing and employment. You know, being forced to go back where all of your problems began in the first place was not really conducive to success. Reuben: – what jobs someone with a criminal record may hold. What nonprofit boards they can sit on. Whether or not they can run for public office. Whether or not somebody can adopt a child. It was just a few years ago that you couldn’t be a dog groomer once you got out of prison. Kevin: If you’re living in an area where job opportunities are scant before you went to prison and now you get out, you have a conviction on your back, then the obvious solution would be to try to get closer to where jobs are, to where employers are a little bit more understanding and will give you an opportunity. But the parole officer won’t let you move. And by the time you get approval to move, whatever job lead you might have gotten is gone. I had conditions of my release that I had to have full-time employment, attend twelve-step meetings, attend anger management. And I had to pay supervision fees. Which may not seem like, you know, it’s a difficult thing to do. But again, you’re asking a potential employer to hire you as a convicted felon and also give you enough time to attend twelve-step meetings, attend anger management. And then you don’t have transportation, and so a lot of your time is spent on public transportation, if you’re lucky enough to have that. I mean, so you could see how all of it is really just a perfect storm to set a person up to go back through that cycle.Sam: How do you think reentry needs to be improved?Kevin: We need to rethink, you know, some of the policies that are being used to supposedly help people stay out. I was very fortunate. My grandmother was my reentry program. I mean, she gave me the main thing that I needed. She gave me housing. But unfortunately, for a lot of people when they are released, they don’t have supports like that. And whether or not a person has a legitimate opportunity to successfully make it back into society, it shouldn’t be dependent on – on luck. Reuben: The person whose car has been broken into might not want that 15-year-old kid to go to an adult prison, might not want that 17-year-old kid to do 10 years because they stole someone’s car. But it doesn’t matter what they want, because at that point, the world of prosecutors and police evidence and attorneys takes over, and disregards what the victim wants.Aswad Thomas: In 2009, just after graduating college, becoming the first of my family to ever graduate, and on my way to play professional basketball overseas, I became a victim of gun violence. Those bullets immediately ended my basketball career. Aswad: I wasn’t connected to any victim services. I remember law enforcement came to visit me several times in my home, and it was always about the case. They never asked me how I was doing. They never told me about the state’s victims compensation program. They never connected me to the victim advocate in their department. So I was left to deal with this traumatic experience, physically and mentally, on my own.Aswad: And I remember being in the prosecutor’s office, and the more that they shared about this young man – that he was from my community, he had been arrested before, he had spent time in juvenile facilities, he had dropped out of high school. For some reason, I started to feel bad. And so I asked the prosecutor, I said, ‘How much time is this young man looking at?’ And they told me this young man was looking at 40 years. I asked the prosecutor, ‘Can I talk to this young man about the incident? Why did he shoot me?’ I wanted him to know who I was as an individual. And that request was denied completely. Aswad: There’s a narrative that majority of crime victims support tough on crime policies. And that’s not true.Aswad: Crime victims know that to keep our communities safe, we actually need to invest in what actually works. And so we talk about things like prevention, mental health treatment, drug treatment – those are the things that stop the cycles of crime. Many survivors want what happened to them not to happen again. And for those that have caused us harm, we want those individuals to get the rehabilitation that they need, because the majority of those individuals are coming back to our communities.During my last doctor’s appointment, my doctor, he started to tell me the story of another young man from my community who he had treated four years prior for a gunshot wound. And this young man was shot in his face, lost his sight in his left eye at the age of 14. And like myself, he was released from that hospital back into the community. And the more detail that my doctor shared about this young man, my heart just started to beat fast. Because I was realizing that he was describing one of the young men that had shot me.We need to shift our thinking about punishment and we need to understand that there needs to be an investment in services to help people deal with the trauma that they have experienced, so that unaddressed trauma won’t result in contact with the criminal justice system. Michele Deitch: And the idea was, if you’re going to build a new jail, it needs to be something that is radically different. Could it be reimagined in a way that would be better at meeting the needs of the women in the facility?Michele: – did not want a new facility that just replicated all the problems in previous jails. So our committee really dug into how else a jail could be, what a facility that is gender responsive, trauma-informed, and rehabilitative might look like.Henry Gass: Could you elaborate? How would the facility be different from a normal jail? Michele: We believed that the facility had to be a place that respects the dignity and inherent worth, the potential, of each person inside. Women experience jail very differently than men. Ninety percent of women in custody have experienced very significant trauma in their lives. So we need to take account of that if we want to change behavior moving forward.Prisons and jails traditionally are designed in very institutional ways. Everything from concrete floors to steel furniture to loud, clanging doors. And those are features that are not only the opposite of what we think of as a normalized environment, but they also induce trauma. And so trying to soften that environment through more natural materials, more light coming into the facility, avoiding bars and concrete and steel.You know, adults, they don’t sleep in bunk beds. So why not respect people’s privacy? Give people individual rooms, have them stay in smaller living communities. Give them access to kitchens and to gardens, let them do their own laundry, give them access to the outdoors. And these are principles that have really been the underpinning of a lot of European designs, particularly Scandinavian prisons, that have been much more successful at helping people who are incarcerated avoid being harmed by their experience and avoid coming back to prison in the future. Henry: You know, there’s an argument that jails and prisons shouldn’t be nice places to live in, that, you know, if the people locked up there feel comfortable, then they’re not learning their lesson, so to speak. What are your thoughts on – on that argument? Michele: I mean, I don’t think that people ought to be sent to prison or jail for punishment. Their punishment is that they are having their liberty taken away. While they are incarcerated, that does not need to be punitive. That doesn’t work to change behavior. All it does is further traumatize people and make for an unsafe setting. We can’t tell people on the one hand, ‘We want you to change. We want you to be an upstanding citizen when you get out,’ at the same time that we are treating them in ways that are disrespectful and harmful to them.Michele: Before COVID, it was very possible for most citizens to think there was a bright line that we could draw between what happens inside these facilities and what happens in our communities. Well, what COVID has shown us is how we treat people inside, and what happens to them there, is going to affect our communities. We have to stop acting as though this is somehow disconnected from us.Our notions of prisons and jails can be very deeply reimagined to be healthier, safer, and more rehabilitative. We’ve got international models that show us that if you treat people with dignity and respect, and give them the services and programs they need, and interact with them very, very differently than we currently do, you’re going to get better results.Baz Dreisinger: I definitely think having an international perspective can change the road of justice in the US. In some respects, it’s easier to unseat your assumptions about a system by stepping outside and seeing it in a foreign context.I am Baz Dreisinger, I’m a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I founded the Prison to College Pipeline program.Baz: What surprised me the most was seeing how little difference there was in so many respects, and how this system, the American system, became cut and pasted on the world. But I think there were a few things that are surprising in terms of their difference. And those usually tend to be pockets of small progressive innovations in places where you might not necessarily expect to see them.Baz: – a place that is certainly not to be held up as some model of criminal justice progressiveness. But they’ve got an incredible reentry planning program. They have a national job bank for getting people jobs when they come out of prison.Baz: That person will come to a family group conference. So family members, community elders – which are very significant figures in Maori culture – social workers. And then you have the person who was, you know, involved in the harm. And what happened is discussed. A plan of action is devised. And whether that means becoming part of a community program, or completing some level of education.Our punitive criminal criminal justice system says, when a harm occurs, ‘OK, who did it and how do we punish them?’ In restorative justice, what you say is, ‘A harm has occurred. Who’s been harmed? And how do we address their needs?’ Baz: There was a response that was punitive and people were just being thrown into these old colonial prisons. And that wasn’t sustainable. So they created what were known as the gacaca courts. And these were large, open-air meetings where the individuals who committed these harms would confront the person who survived those tremendous acts of harm and sometimes were the survivors of family members who were killed. And systems were devised whereby people could make reparations. Baz: There were lots of avenues created. And there was also a national reckoning with the enormity of what happened that still continues to this day, every April, to commemorate the genocide.Baz: We really need to think outside the box. We need to shake up our ideas about prison, and we need to think about what really builds safe communities. Baz: When I first started working in prisons more than 15 years ago, it was a very unpopular thing. I remember people saying, ‘Why are you educating criminals?’ And, ‘Why are you going to prisons?’ Things are very, very different now. And talking about prisons and being, you know, an activist in that space has become much more popular and much more mainstream. Kevin: We have to change the culture. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to show them wrong, to prove that we can be changed despite the circumstances, despite not having the resources available. We can contribute to our communities. And they start becoming the best example of what change looks like.Amber-Rose: I did get a felony very early on in life, when I was 18 years old. And so it’s like, if you ask us what is public safety. If you ask me, what would have kept me away from being convicted of something serious and violent, I can tell you exactly what I needed. So for me, just seeing people who are directly impacted lifting their own voices and their own expertise in what would work, I find hope in building what we really want to see. Because I think that those who are closest to the harm and the problem are actually the ones holding the solutions. 

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