On Vox, Dominique Matti writes about how her father's incarceration punished the whole family. She writes beautifully about cruel circumstances.
For every man in a cell missing the birth of his child, there is a woman delivering alone. My uncle took me to my elementary school's father-daughter dance. No one asked why — everyone already knew. While I was grateful for my uncle's attendance, my dad's absence was a much larger presence, a yawning chasm at the core of my childhood. His absence was something we were all trying to accommodate, to build a life around, to cope with.
...his absence remained an elephant in every room we entered. His absence marked us. We had to compensate for it, compartmentalize it, and normalize it. ...
When my father was released, we tried to live like he had never been gone. But it was impossible. His goneness was as integral a piece in our relationship as his presence. ...
Despite the vast number of Americans dealing with it, having a loved one in prison is lonely. I had to deal with the absence of my father alone. My mother dealt with the absence of her co-parent alone. My grandparents dealt with the absence of their son alone. Incarceration has different implications on everyone it affects, and it often feels like no one understands.
There is a stigma attached to having a loved one in prison that makes it difficult to talk about openly. At sleepovers, speaking about it earned me looks of pity from my playmates' parents. At school, kids were amused by the stories. I was a stereotype fulfilling itself, and there was very little genuine empathy for what I was going through. I was confronting the reality that one misstep meant anyone I loved could be taken and locked away in a box for years. I needed understanding.
Instead I found that many people believe it's our fault for loving the incarcerated — that we deserve the suffering inextricably linked to that love. People think we are foolish or unfortunate.
And it feels selfish to speak to the person in prison about it. It's hard to fret for yourself when you know the reality an incarcerated person endures each day. I told my father I missed him. I did not tell him I was scared. People on the inside need strength and support, and much of that strength comes from the people on the outside — despite the fact that they need the same. And so the processing of all of the heavy emotions that come with incarceration is largely internal, and largely traumatic; it's largely done alone.
I sat through many callous remarks, many fairy tales about "good guys" and "bad guys," feeling like I was on the wrong side of existence. I was not aligned with the people protected by the system; I was being punished by it. And if I spoke up about its flaws — the traps of race and poverty, the evidence of unjust sentencing, the incentive to take a plea, the industrialization of prisons — I was silenced with nullifiers like, "You do the crime, you do the time." I learned quickly that many people are unwilling to hear about the humanity of prisoners and the people who love them. Human suffering requires confronting — "criminal" suffering does not exist (or, worse, it's justified).The United States, with 2.2 million people incarcerated, is finally acknowledging the problem of overcrowded prisons. What we have yet to acknowledge is the problem of overcriminalization.
A 2014 Chicago Tribune editorial talks about how that problem leads directly to deaths like that of Eric Garner, the Chicago man who was killed by police when they arrested him for selling cigarettes:
On the opening day of law school at Yale, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.The Chicago police may not have meant to kill Eric Garner but in their zealous attempt to enforce a silly law against selling "loosies", indivdual cigarettes, they did. Without that law, they would not have killed Garner.
The legal scholar Douglas Husak, in his excellent 2009 book "Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law," points out that federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is — a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice.
In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure.Too many laws make it too easy to put people in prison, to put families into the awful black hole of having a family member in prison. As Ms. Matti makes painfully clear, even when the family member returns home from prison, that black hole remains a presence in the family.
Part of the problem, Husak suggests, is the growing tendency of legislatures — including Congress — to toss in a criminal sanction at the end of countless bills on countless subjects. It's as though making an offense criminal shows how much we care about it.The Adam Walsh Act, Jessica's Law, and Megan's Law all came from efforts to show how much legislators care for children. If only those legislators would acknowledge publicly that the laws have done more damage than good to children.
Legislators tend to nod solemnly when they hear how families suffer under those well-meant laws but we need more than sympathetic nods.
We need legislators with backbone, legislators willing to risk their legislative seat on behalf of families in their constituency.
I quoted a great deal of Ms. Matti's piece but please read the whole thing. Read the Tribune editorial, too.
People tend to think that incarceration issues concern only those who have someone in prison. Those of us in that category laugh a little ruefully at that way of thinking because we remember clearly the days when we didn't need to think about incarceration,either.
Overcriminalization increases the odds that your family will be touched, too.