Have you ever seen a geode? Kinda ugly on the outside. Rough. Dull. Like a coarse granite softball. Or the forbidding stone wall of a prison. Just keep moving, folks. Nothing to see here.
Until you crack it open. Suddenly you are dazzled by a jumble of glorious crystals—an artwork of colors and shapes and hues, perfectly meshed as by a jeweler’s hand.
Today I will crack open for you the dazzling world of work being done to dismantle mass incarceration. Each effort, like each geode, is unique. Each has tackled a particular task in the dismantling process. And each would welcome your participation in their work, if you are so moved.
Choose carefully, because the work of uprooting mass incarceration is far from over. This uniquely American monstrosity is deeply embedded in our society thanks to the unholy one-two punch that created it:
1. Mass media made Americans exaggeratedly fearful by incessantly sensationalizing crimes anywhere and everywhere, which in turn enabled…
2. Unscrupulous politicians’ fanning the flames of that fear and exploiting it by passing cynical laws to sweep millions into prison.
The politicians loudly proclaimed the lie that these laws make Americans safer. Instead, they destroyed the lives of millions of Americans by vastly expanding the definition of what is a “crime” and vastly increasing mandatory and irrational prison sentences for crimes. The result: a 500% percent increase in our prison population practically overnight, inflicting nightmarish pain on families and ruinous costs on our nation.
But there are some who love mass incarceration and will fight to keep it thriving. Politicians learned that "Lock 'em up" gets votes, and businesses learned there was profit to be made from captive workforces. These partners-in-crime have hard-wired mass incarceration to give them what they want for a long, long time.
And so, trying to dismantle mass incarceration might seem a fool's errand. But once I cracked open the subject, I discovered a thousand organizations working collaboratively, hundreds of thousands of professionals and volunteers, legions of incarcerated individuals--all with a single goal. They have produced decades’ worth of research and filings and protests and donations and appeals and lawsuits and self-realizations and victories and defeats. It is a dazzling enterprise, albeit largely out of sight. More to the point of this posting, their ongoing work offers a wealth of opportunities for you and me to join them in ending America’s crime of mass incarceration.
But there’s the rub. With such a widespread, multi-faceted array of efforts underway, how would any individual know where to pitch in? The problem with many of us do-gooders is that we are inconstant in our enthusiasms and commitments. Each time a new shiny object of concern arises, we mouse-click a protest letter or contribute a few bucks or show up at a rally or run a campaign or maybe even serve on a committee or a board for a while. But we are reluctant to dedicate ourselves unstintingly to something that seems impossible to fix.
Something, that is, like mass incarceration.
So what I’m going to do now is to lay out a carefully vetted array of efforts for you to consider joining. They range from reversing the systems that created mass incarceration, to helping a newly released individual build a healthy life outside the walls. Because not everyone is moved by the same challenge, it really does matter that you dig deep and choose wisely. Rummage through the websites I've provided to see if you discover some effort that really speaks to you--one that triggers the involuntary head-nod that tells you, “Yep, I get that. I could feel really great about helping make that happen.”
Fair warning: don’t bother reading any further unless you are prepared to do some serious work hoping for that head-nod. From here on, it's kind of a "Do it yourself" kit. I have spent dozens of hours digging into hundreds of websites in order to “curate” these few for you to explore. But each is a geode. Once you crack it open, you’ll see that all of these organizations have multiple initiatives, so you’ll need to spend considerable amounts of time exploring the websites (and links within their websites) as you await the signal that you've found your new job.
Bad laws and perverse incentives sustain mass incarceration. Help reverse them:
The organizations behind the websites above are out to dismantle the entire system that is "mass incarceration." But as you spend time in that space, you’ll almost certainly notice some more particular “side effects”—like the challenges the incarcerated persons face within prisons or upon re-entering society, or the plight of juveniles. And so because you may feel more moved to work on a more focused issue, I am including selected links that address some of these initiatives, too:
Conditions within prisons are often inhumane. Help stop cruelty:
Incarceration damages families. Help mitigate that damage:
Today’s prisoners are our neighbors tomorrow. Help them prepare:
Formerly-incarcerated people face daunting challenges. Help them stand tall:
Alternatives to incarceration abound. Help them replace imprisonment:
Many in prison are innocent. Help free the unjustly convicted:
I have never posted a piece about which I felt so apologetic, because I am excruciatingly aware of how much of importance I have left on the cutting room floor. But short of my re-writing The New Jim Crow, it must be that way. The selected links I have provided will lead you as deep as you could ever bear to plunge into this work. The rest is up to you.