The Word: The Myth of Safety Through Punishment

The Word from Solitary Watch for April 2022

by | April 29, 2022

This is the first of a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch.

Two weeks ago, a Tuesday morning in New York City, where I live, began with shock and horror. A man riding the subway at rush hour shot multiple passengers in a crowded car. Ten people suffered gunshot wounds and at least thirteen others were also injured.

As many people have pointed out, the shooting happened despite a recent, sizable increase in the number of police officers patrolling the subway system. Those thousand additional cops couldn’t stop this act of violence, yet New York’s mayor had pushed for more policing as a way of making subway riders feel safer. After the shooting, he went even further—announcing that he will, at least temporarily, double the number of transit police.  

The response, a sadly predictable one, is just one example of the reflex to respond to the failures of our current “public safety” strategies with further investment in them, rather than in alternatives that show promise in accomplishing what these failed strategies cannot. 

We are habituated to look to what is commonly called the criminal justice system for healing and safety that it is not designed, equipped, or able to provide. Our systems of policing, prosecution, and incarceration promise only punishment, in the form of separation, deprivation, and suffering. And for too long, that has been almost the only thing on offer. 

That same response is replicated within jails and prisons. The response to difficult or dangerous behavior, acts of survival or resistance, or even benign rule-breaking, is more punishment and more deprivation, often in the form of solitary confinement.

Like many others, we at Solitary Watch believe it necessary that the language we use reflects people’s full humanity and also the reality of their experience. This is why we have long made the choice to avoid the use of dehumanizing words such as “inmate” and to not shy away from the use of the word “torture” to describe solitary confinement. And it is why we have decided, going forward, to consistently refer to the systems of policing, incarceration, and surveillance—which continue inside jails and prisons—as what we know they are: not a criminal justice system, but a punishment system. 

We know incarceration is a form of violence and an ineffective long-term response to violence, and yet we continue to double down on it. We know that there are other, more effective responses to violence, and yet we continue to underfund those while pumping funds into police forces and jails and prisons. Solitary confinement can be seen as the ultimate expression of this failed—and cruel—approach, which is one reason why we have made it our mission to investigate and expose this dark corner of the punishment system. 

The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a massive uprising against state violence. But almost immediately, there was a massive effort to conflate resistance with danger. Efforts to limit the harms of policing and incarceration in American life have been met with relentless fear mongering.

But there have also been concrete changes—not just in the past few years, but in the last decade and stretching back much further. Activists, voters, scholars, and truth-telling journalists—and notably the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones in these roles—have articulated how our punishment system makes us less, not more safe, and have built movements and power in service of a different vision of safety and justice. 

The reliance on punishment and punishment alone—epitomized by the practice of solitary confinement—will be allowed to continue for as long as people are not willing to apply creativity, compassion, and resources to the question of what addressing and preventing harm would actually look like. 

The values of experimentation, collaboration, information-sharing and risk-taking are essential ones in this work. Too often, new ideas and possibilities are dismissed as ineffective even though we have seen the ineffectiveness and devastation of the old strategies for decades. Too often, the safety and progress of communities have been held hostage to the short-term calculations of politicians fearing pushback from actors invested in the status quo.

Yet the status quo has failed us. It has most directly failed the people subjected to the violence of incarceration, but it has also failed all of us who are promised safety as a result of that violence.

When we recognize this failure—inside our prisons, in our communities—and name it, we can begin to build something better. 

This is the first of a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch. Subscribe to receive our monthly and weekly emails, and to support our work, please consider making a donation.

Vaidya Gullapalli

Vaidya Gullapalli is a staff writer and editor with Solitary Watch. She is a lawyer and former public defender, and was previously a writer at The Appeal. She is on Twitter @vgullap.

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