Takeaways From the US Prison System Through a “Jailbirds” Lens

To think that there’s any justice in the US justice system is naive at best. Despite having the third largest population in the world, the US holds the record for the highest number of imprisoned people — 2.2 million out of 10.35 million. Behind the country of Seychelles, the US is second for the highest rate of imprisonment.

It should not be news to anyone, especially after all of the (very valid) protests of 2020 that Black Americans are jailed at astronomically high rates compared to white Americans — anywhere between 5 to 10 times more likely, depending on the state. Black Americans are also more likely to be stopped by police and/or experience police brutality.

Indigenous peoples or American Indians, people identifying as Latinx, Native Hawaiians and/or Pacific Islanders are also all more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans.

There really are no words for the impact that systemic racism has in this country. It infiltrates every part of life and unsurprisingly, quickly turns any hope for justice into a continual cycle of oppression, destruction, and breaking people down.

The amount of data that exists pertaining to the issues with the US justice system is almost infinite; active work towards solutions, less so. On top of the egregious nature of systemic racism and its role in “justice,” the problems with prisons in the US are a nightmare. I recently watched the show “Jailbirds” on Netflix which only amplified what we all know to some degree: there is nothing fair or just about the US justice system.

The Premise of “Jailbirds”

Over a 4-month period, a documentary film crew lived (two weeks on, one week off) and recorded what life at the Sacramento County Jail was like, through interviews with inmates and staff. The show mainly focused on the 7th floor, where the women are housed.

I didn’t think a show could make me, a leftist former public school teacher who has long had issues with police and the justice system, feel any stronger about the need for justice reform. I was wrong. “Jailbirds” and its many themes reinforced and strengthened my existing beliefs.

The biggest crime of all is unhealed trauma.

From those at the Sacramento Co. Jail who shared a bit of their background stories, significant trauma was a common theme. The number of people functioning in survival mode — not being able to process emotions, lashing out, etc. — was abysmal.

Nearly every woman interviewed had, at the very least, faced domestic partner violence or physical abuse. Gang banging, abandonment, growing up in foster care, sexual assault, households rife with drug addiction, the list goes on.

Trauma has physical effects on the brain, especially when happening at a young age (as was the case for many women depicted). Imagine a world where even half of the $80 billion we spend on incarceration went towards preventing and healing trauma instead of punishing it.

A punishment-only system does not work.

For people who haven’t experienced generational trauma, vast racism, and/or poverty, it might be easy to think of jail as a consequence and try to avoid the actions that lead there. Again, it’s critical to remember that people are targeted based on race and other factors to get caught — doesn’t mean that a white married couple in the suburbs isn’t committing crimes, it’s that police aren’t looking.

But back to thinking through consequences. If you told your child that if they eat a snack before dinner, they’ll get in trouble, there’s a chance that they might avoid eating a snack. But what if one day you’re late coming home from work? What if you accidentally burn the frozen pizza and now have to start over? What if they didn’t get a chance to eat much lunch at school and are famished? What if they want to eat something healthy, like an apple? What if they just really want to splurge and have one of the delicious cookies you made?

In the justice system, few allowances are made except, historically, when it comes to white people. Not to mention, most of us have weighed out the consequences and still choose to do something that breaks the law, such as speeding. When your only incentive is to not get caught and to not get in trouble, there’s very little room for growth. It’d be like punishing your kid because “that’s the rule” instead of giving them what they need.

In “Jailbirds,” this looked like some of the women knowing that if they fought, they’d face severe consequences. But when it came down to it, some of them fought anyways. Had they been taught to regulate their emotions as children? Were they really fighting or were they protecting themselves? We’re imperfect people. When our only option is “don’t make a mistake,” the stakes aren’t only unreasonable, they’re impossible.

There is no room for forgiveness.

There was one young woman named Taylor who was involved in a multiple homicide as a 17-year-old. She did not murder anyone herself, but was present and aided by giving one of the gunman her shirt as a mask.

At the time she was living in foster care, then sent to a juvenile detention center, then jail. She’s expected to serve at least several more years in prison.

She goes to her sentencing and is visibly upset and remorseful. The judge essentially calls her a sociopath because as a 17-year-old on drugs, she went to a breakfast buffet in the hotel after the murder.

I’m not here to say whether or not she’s a sociopath, though in my opinion, she wasn’t presented as such. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s no forgiveness for people who have committed crimes and served their time. Determining just how much punishment is enough falls to a judge. They get to decide, arguably very subjectively, whether a person is good or evil, whether they deserve more time or less time.

Even if a judge does show forgiveness or compassion, a person’s reputation after being charged with a crime is forever marred. We make it nearly impossible for ex-convicts to get jobs, leaving all the more opportunity for people to resort to crime to get by.

I think there are some people who truly are bad and cannot exist safely within society. I also think that’s the vast minority of people who are currently incarcerated. As mentioned, I long for a society where money and resources are reappropriated to people and interventions that deal with trauma, wellness, and poverty at the source.

Conditions are inhumane.

Dirty cells, subsistence that can barely be counted as “food,” solitary confinement, little opportunity for fitness and any type of wellness, open areas with row after row of bunk beds and near-constant noise, and in “Jailbirds,” backed up plumbing that pours actual feces onto the floors.

This was all in pre-COVID times.

Since COVID-19 first started reaching jails, 1 in 5 people who are incarcerated have been infected. Thus far, 1,700 have died. Reports have surfaced of people being refused care or treatment, or even tests.

Jails and prisons would have so fewer inmates if drug charges weren’t a thing.

It’s never made sense to me. A person gets caught with drugs or is found using and instead of it being an opportunity for intervention (if necessary) or shrugging it off (for things such as mild cannabis use), they’re thrown into jail.

So many women in the show were detoxing in prison or coming down from drugs. By decriminalizing drug use, it takes away so much stigma and offers the chance to provide actual, real help.

People should be held accountable for their actions when it affects other people. But drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness, physical/cognitive/behavioral disabilities, etc. are not punishable offenses on their own. They are, however, often treated as such.

People yell in the park because they might be having a manic episode, or they might be playing a game of frisbee with their friends. A person might be caught using heroin and thrown in jail while a white male business exec is bumping coke and praised for a successful sale. The only difference is who the person is and whether or not they get caught.

I would say that “Jailbirds” is eye-opening, and perhaps for some it is, but that seems like an insult to those who have suffered the chains of the US justice system since its inception. There’s nothing new about what’s presented in “Jailbirds,” and maybe that’s the point. It’s time we reevaluate an archaic, inhumane, and baseless system that hurts more than it helps.

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