Portrait

6x8 Portrait is a research project that will explore the impact of mass incarceration on families in the New York City metropolitan area in a way that aims to trigger a national conversation on the topic. 

How prison does nothing to make society better

How prison does nothing to make society better

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I was the only grandson on my mom’s side of the family until 2016. Then, we found out about Brandon. Brandon wasn’t my uncle’s newborn son. He was 23.

I’m generally cynical about social media and the effect it has on society. Yet, when it connects a man and woman who haven’t seen each other since a fling 23 years ago, helping them realize that fling created a child, it’s hard not to see some benefit.

Brandon lives in Florida and I live in New York, so good cousin bonding time has been hard to come by. However, this past November we had a weekend together at a family wedding. He grabs a beer, grins and says, “There’s a lot to tell. What do you want to know about me?”

I wanted to know what made Brandon himself. I can’t do small talk. It’s draining and generally inauthentic. Plus, I already knew he’d grown up in the foster system not knowing who his real father was, so the man had to have important stories. I just didn’t think one of them would be prison.

Brandon was incarcerated in Duval County, Fla., the county containing Jacksonville. He wasn’t in there for anything too serious — just stealing bicycles around town to fund a weed habit.

Still, once you factored in his pre-trial detention, he was locked up for almost a year and a half. People debate whether a prison sentence should focus on rehabilitation or retribution. I’m a researcher for a criminal justice reform program so I already thought the prison should focus on rehab. There was no way I could have a different opinion after hearing of the futility of the Duval County system.

He was just a teenager when he went into the system. He figured that as a low-level offender he’d be in a part of the prison, or at least a cell, with people there for similar crimes. Instead, he said cellmate was a convicted murderer. Let’s go through how bad of an idea this is. A young kid in prison for the first time, and just for non-violent theft, is already scared. He gets the message. Bunking him with a violent or hardened criminal can only have two broad effects. At the best, the kid is in constant fear and will do whatever his bunkmate says. At the worst, his bunkmate rubs off on him, hardens him and now the state has created an environment where hardened criminals can make prisoners more of a danger to society after prison than they were before.

Luckily, for Brandon, that cellmate and his subsequent violent cellmates didn’t corrupt him. It was just one of many aspects of his incarceration which failed to realize he was a human being with untapped potential. There were no prison officials or counselors to ask him about his upbringing with an drug-addicted mother who lost custody of him, leading him to bounce around from abusive foster family to abusive foster family. There were some rehab opportunities available, but only if you were a drug addict or alcoholic. A “regular” criminal was out of luck. He craved a positive male role model, but all he saw were guards trained to consistently distrust the prisoners.

After he was released, he craved both that role model and positive employment. He realized crime didn’t pay, but that was in spite of prison, not because of it. Yet, employers only saw the “Have you been convicted of a crime?” box he checked on a job application.

Duval County did nothing for him in prison to develop job skills or provide any way for him to go to an employer and say, “This person can vouch for the transformation I made in prison.” They only addressed his weed habit, which he made sound bigger than it was just to gain access to a constructive prison activity. Essentially, prison was just a year and a half of sitting around with hardened criminals, having little chance to do anything productive and leaving there with a much smaller chance of legal employment.

Now, he’s a life coach in Jacksonville with Operation New Hope. Essentially, he’s the role model and advocate for the formerly incarcerated which he craved years ago.

Thankfully, Florida has made several positive criminal justice reforms recently, making Brandon’s life and coaching much better. He also has a thriving relationship with his real dad now. Dads want a boy to be proud of and boys want a dad to be proud of them. When that relationship is absent, the state has an amazing opportunity to inject positive role models into a prisoner’s troubled life.

Brandon finishes his beer and reflects on how a few immature decisions led to a year and a half of his life being wasted. There was nothing he could do. No one seemed to care about actually improving his life. The state saw prison as enough. How disrespectful it is to treat a human life so trivially as to not consider if prison is actually making them or society as a whole better.

Written by Phillip Reeves

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