Beyond Bars: Just Chewing the Fat

by E. C. Theus-Roberts
Sterling, CO

The Penal Institution is a broken social control mechanism that exacerbates root causes of criminality, perpetuating its necessity and enlargement. The Penal Institution and all its dichotomies must be abolished. Considering this reality it is interesting how many fall victim to “objectification rhetoric.” Violent and nonviolent, drug dealer and addict, white collar and common criminal. Objectification rhetoric is the supra-imposition of a classification, description, or title which allows one to contemplate another person as “other” than human, like you or myself. Why is this important? Objectification rhetoric distracts focus, energy, effort away from the goal—abolition. Instead it concentrates attention on who qualifies (or should) for release or to remain in a prison cell.

As you can see, any such debate avoids the issue at hand: abolishing a broken system. While there are some who simply refuse to live in peace and harmony, the PIC (Penal Industrial Complex) still must be excised from society. It is cancerous and only produces more malignancy. Objectification rhetoric does more than detract from maters of import regarding abolition—it dehumanizes. Objectifying a person permits authorities, officials, politicians, even reformers to tacitly affirm: the PIC is in good working order except for some anomalies. “Anomalies” being innocents imprisoned, lives ruined and lost. This is an outcome of over 40 years of “tough on crime.” It is how and why prisoncrats, bureaucrats, and lawmakers on the Hill can puff their plumage and proclaim success after introducing SAFE (Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Act) and ignore the systemic desolation while lavishing in profits from mass incarceration. To be succinct—reforms, modifications, and every effort within existing system parameters are topical. They place a band-aid over a broken leg. Sure, the surface looks better, but the leg remains broken.

With a cancer growth, if you only cut off a piece, it still exists and grows larger in response. Reforms, modifications, and employing objectification rhetoric accomplishes nothing meaningful and avoids the issues society must address. Is it justifiable to retard a person’s life at one moment forever for one mistake or act of survival? How can we continue to devalue our fellow humans and ignore that people change? How can we seek or claim justice by using a broken, prejudicial system? 

As I now confront the problem from the inside a new perspective emerges. Reforms touted in the legislature, judicial halls, or penal offices signify nothing more than changes in titles or acronyms and ignore the person imprisoned. Solitary goes through cosmetic surgery becoming RH-Max, SHU, MCU… Death penalties turn into virtual lives without. Then management control units, special needs yards, and so on and so forth. All lauded as successes but not one a real step towards abolition.

The predominant mentality throughout the PIC is “Treat them like human beings.” I find this quizzical because, what else is a convict other than a human being? As long as objectification rhetoric is part of the conversation, abolition will remain a shadowy, unrealizable objective. In the meantime, society chews the fat while perpetuating the vicious cycle.