The Nonviolent/Violent Dichotomy

Focusing on nonviolence won’t decrease our nation’s prison population

MORE than 40 years after the War on Drugs was declared, our nation faces overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. As state and federal budgets sag under this weight, politicians who once vowed to be “tough on crime” are now introducing legislation that ostensibly begins to undo their efforts. Though the new president has set himself firmly against Obama’s criminal justice reform (along with everything else Obama has implemented), lawmakers on the state level are continuing their efforts to cut prison populations.

On the federal level, there have been talks of a bipartisan approach to criminal justice reform. In the Senate, for example, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul teamed up with Democrats Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act, allowing federal judges to hand out sentences below the mandatory minimums. Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner teamed up with Democrat Bobby Scott to introduce the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which encourages probation for lower-level offenses. The act’s supporters run the gamut of the political spectrum, from the NAACP and the ACLU, to the Police Foundation and Right on Crime.

On the state level, governors and legislatures are embracing criminal justice reform and ways to send fewer people to prison for lengthy periods of time. California passed Proposition 57, allowing people with nonviolent felonies the chance for parole and the possibility to earn time off their sentences by participating in prison programming. State level reforms aren’t limited to blue states either. Oklahoma and Utah, which both have Republican governors, reclassified various drug and property felonies into misdemeanors. So did Alaska, whose governor is a Republican-turned-independent.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the start of abolition--or even wider decarceration. As the SAFE Justice Act pushes for nonprison alternatives for lower-level (nonviolent) convictions on the federal level, it still focuses on “concentrating prison space on violent and career criminals.” Even Obama, who recently wrote that criminal justice reform has been a focus of his entire career, has stated, “There are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals.”

Concentrating prison space on violent and career criminals might be a goal that few would argue against. After all, who doesn’t want to be safe in their homes, streets and communities? But this divide between nonviolent and violent crimes ignores the root causes of harm and violence as well as society’s failure to recognize and address these forms of violence.

This was certainly the case for Roberta Bell, whom I interviewed for Truthout this past November. Bell, sentenced to life in prison for witness tampering, intimidating a witness, and the use of a firearm in the death of another woman, can very easily be viewed as one of the “violent criminals” that the SAFE Justice Act and many politicians want to keep in prison.

But the charges and conviction fail to take into account Bell’s extensive history of abuse, including the repeated sexual abuse by the man who was her mother’s drug dealer. When they met, she was a 14-year-old with a new baby; he was in his late twenties. He not only demanded sex from the teenager, but also forced her to hold his drugs and money. At the time, Bell didn’t think of his actions as abuse. “I didn’t know to call it abuse in any form. I know different now but back then it was just a young girl being ‘fast,’” she explained in a letter from federal prison. “So, based on the knowledge and understanding that I have now I view it as having been abused and taken advantage of back then. He was a dope dealer and I was the daughter [of a] dope fiend. A young girl with a baby at 14, so in his eyes (and the world) I was probably viewed as the same.”

The man positioned himself as her savior. “He never let me forget how ‘lucky’ I was and that if it hadn’t been for him, my mother might’ve had me on the corner turning tricks,” she recalled. Even after getting married and having children, Bell continued to feel a sense of obligation to him. When she was 20, he instructed her to drive to another city to deliver money to his brother. She did, and when she arrived, followed his brother’s instructions to drive to another building and pick up another woman. The next day, she learned that police had found the woman’s body and that the woman had been scheduled to testify against the brother. Still, Bell was too scared to tell the police. Though she was questioned several times, she lied each time. But that didn’t protect her--after each interview, the dealer beat her. At age 24, Bell was convicted and sentenced to life in federal prison.

Bell is among the 4.4 percent (or 551) women in federal prisons with a violent conviction. She’s one of approximately 14,000 people (of any gender) in federal prisons who are not only excluded from mainstream criminal justice reform, but also vilified as the real bogeyman threatening public safety. Hers is also an example among countless others of how people can be classified as “violent” criminals even if they did not commit a violent action.

Roberta Bell’s story is not uncommon: abuse is a frequent pathway to prison, particularly for women. However, no one seems to know how many abuse survivors are arrested and prosecuted for actions stemming from abuse because no agency tracks this data. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that nearly half of women in local jails and state prisons had been abused prior to their arrest. It also found that, of women convicted of murder, the majority had killed intimate partners or family members (though no further details are given). That’s the most recent national information available--and it still fails to identify how often abuse survivors have either been coerced into crimes by abusers, like Bell, or are arrested for defending themselves against violence. While no hard-and-fast numbers exist, hers is a theme that has come up again and again during my dozens of interviews with women behind bars.

Little over half (53.2 percent or 704,800 people) of state prisoners of all genders have been convicted of violent crimes. Among women in state prisons, 37 percent (or 34,000 people) are convicted of violent crimes. These numbers reflect only the number of cisgender women (and maybe a handful of trans women) in women’s prisons. No government agency tracks trans women in men’s prisons (or trans men in women’s prisons).

Like their federal counterparts, people in state prisons for violent crimes are largely excluded from conversations about sentencing and other criminal justice reforms. Many have also been sentenced to decades behind bars and often face the prospect of repeated parole denials, with the most common reason being the “nature of the crime.” The divide between violence and nonviolence ignores the ways that people grow, mature, and change, instead freezing them into a single act (or set of actions) forever.

Sixty-four-year-old Mary Fish, currently incarcerated in Oklahoma, has been repeatedly denied parole. If you look primarily at her prison rap sheet, which is filled with violent convictions going back to 1980, you might conclude that she’s one of those “bad people” who needs to be locked up for the safety of others. I’ve been corresponding with Mary since 2013. I’ve learned how any focus on solely on the nature of her crimes overlooks the tangle of racism, poverty, patriarchy, and addiction that have kept Mary in the crosshairs of the criminal legal system.

Mary grew up in rural Oklahoma, the seventh of nine children in a poverty-stricken Creek family. Her father exerted extreme control over her mother and siblings. When he wasn’t beating his wife and children, he was withholding money meant for groceries, a common form of non-physical abuse. The violence in her home was never addressed. Mary dropped out of high school and ran away from home.

By 1982, Mary was a heavy drinker who grew marijuana behind her trailer in a small Oklahoma town. According to Mary, she had been drinking heavily when three men came to buy marijuana. She was so drunk that she couldn’t find the plants. The men finally did so and two left; one stayed behind. Mary passed out. When she woke, the man was on top of her. She tried to escape and, when the man caught up with her, she stabbed him with a paring knife. No one challenged the prosecution of a low-income Creek woman for defending herself against sexual assault. Mary was sentenced to ten years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. That sentence not only further disrupted her life, but also paved the way for her current incarceration.

Drugs are prevalent in prisons across the country. Mary learned this firsthand when a cellmate offered her Dilaudid, a pain reliever. Mary, seeking a way out of the poverty and violence that she associated with alcoholism, began injecting it. “I thought if I could just stop drinking, I could lick this curse [of alcoholism] that would not leave me,” she explained. She stopped drinking, turning to drugs instead. Even after prison, she continued using drugs, a decision that led to arrests, short jail stays and her current incarceration.

In 2002, Mary drove her brother to a friend’s house, bringing her two young sons along. The friend wasn’t home, Mary recalled, but another man was and he threatened to kill one of her sons. Mary took her brother and children home, then drove back to the house where she beat the man with a piece of rebar and took his wallet. “I was on methadone and other drugs and overreacted,” she told me. She was convicted of assault and battery with intent to kill, as well as robbery, and sentenced to 40 years.

This time, Mary has enrolled in various prison programs, including substance abuse treatment, ongoing support groups and various religious programs. Though federal funding for college-in-prison programs was cut in 1997, the Creek Nation pays for her college classes, enabling Mary to work toward a degree. She also counsels younger women in the prison system, trying to prevent them from repeating the mistakes that continually landed her behind bars.

However, none of this made a difference when the parole board considered her application in October 2015. In Oklahoma (like several other states, including Alabama), the applicant never appears before the board. Instead, the parole board reviews a packet about each applicant, including letters of recommendation. The board denied her application.

As a person with a violent conviction, Mary is ineligible for getting time off her sentence through the many programs she’s taking. “You soon find out when you waltz into your case manager’s office and learn that you are doing day for day and you don’t get earned credits no matter how well you behave and how many self-help and mental health classes you enroll and complete,” she wrote. Thus, unless the parole board changes its mind (or composition), Mary may not be released until she is 75 years old.

Oklahoma, which spends half a billion annually on prisons and has the nation’s highest rate of female incarceration, is now exploring criminal justice reform, including sentencing modifications for low-level drug and property crimes and utilizing alternatives to incarceration. But even if Mary had been arrested today, she would not have qualified for either because, though drugs were the underlying cause of her last conviction, her actions are still considered violent. By positioning people with nonviolent convictions as deserving of sentencing reform, early release and alternatives to prison, the violent/nonviolent framework implies that people with violent convictions don’t deserve consideration at all. Instead, they remain frozen in time, defined by their worst actions rather than by their atonement, growth, and maturity.

This “freezing in time” is most obvious during parole hearings. That was the repeated experience of John Mackenzie. In 1975, Mackenzie, then-29, was sentenced to 25 years to life for fatally shooting a police officer after a burglary. He spent 41 years in prison; during that time, he earned three degrees, participated in prison programs and even managed to create a program that allowed victims to speak directly to prisoners about the impact of their crime.

These accomplishments didn’t matter to the parole board. Mackenzie appeared before them ten times during his last 16 years in prison. Each time, his request for parole was denied; each time, the reason was that his crime showed a “serious disregard for the law” and that releasing him would “undermine respect for the law.” It didn’t matter that New York had passed a 2011 law requiring the board to look at not only his long-ago crime, but also his participation in rehabilitative programs, post-release plans, and risk to public safety.

In August 2016, nine days after he was denied parole for the tenth time, Mackenzie committed suicide. He was 70 years old.

“All the women here say he paroled himself,” said Karen, a 69-year-old domestic violence survivor imprisoned in New York. In 1983, Karen was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for the death of her abusive ex-husband. During her decades behind bars, she has taken every applicable program and has had no disciplinary infractions (prison speak for “has not been in trouble”). Even so, she has been denied parole five times. The reason? “Your release at this time would deprecate the seriousness of the crime and would be incompatible with the welfare of society.”

“If you held my five denials up on a lightboard, superimposing them on each other, the content would match up. The only thing that would change is the date,” she reflected. “In fact, if you held up my denial and someone else’s denial, they would have identical wording.”

That’s more than “Sissy,” sentenced to 50 years for shooting her abusive boyfriend, got. After 11 years in prison, the 62-year-old became eligible for parole. As in Oklahoma, the Alabama parole board does not see applicants, instead deciding based solely on the case file. And, until 2015, it was not required to give a reason for denial. So after learning she would not be allowed to go home, Sissy was left in the dark about what might improve her chances the next time.

Like Mary Fish, Sissy’s conviction bars her from earning time off her sentence. “We don’t get looked at for good behavior, classes taken or anything that is a positive,” she wrote in a recent letter. However, she added, people with nonviolent convictions are allowed those opportunities. “It’s always the nonviolent offenses who get breaks in their cases or time [off] anyway when they start looking at the overcrowdedness in the prison system.” (As of July 2016, Alabama’s prisons were at 178 percent capacity.) The focus on nonviolent crimes, she notes, ignores the fact that “violent offenses are usually the ones holding up the system anyway, especially in Alabama.”

Underlying each woman’s story is a society which failed to recognize and address the violence perpetrated against them, followed by the violence of lengthy (if not life) imprisonment. But these factors are rarely discussed in conversations about crime and criminal justice reform. Abolishing prisons requires abolishing these root causes of harm and violence, including the many forms of violence perpetrated against women. Instead, reforms continue to focus on nonviolent convictions, sidestepping the more fraught conversations about poverty, patriarchy, and gender violence as pathways to prison and the need to end them.

For these conversations to occur, those in power would need to acknowledge--or be pushed to acknowledge--capitalism’s primary role in creating the conditions of poverty that lead people to antisocial behavior and work towards abolishing these conditions. Focusing on nonviolent crimes allows lawmakers--and the general public--to continue sidestepping these fraught conversations and the work needed to eliminate the many forms of violence perpetrated by capitalism and patriarchy. Meanwhile, women like Bell, Fish, Karen, Sissy and countless others, languish behind bars.