Just Say NO to More Prison Violence

by Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman, third-year graduate student in Mathematics

This piece originally appeared on Elizabeth’s personal blog, nonviolentrage.

Warning: this article discusses incarceration and sexual assault. 

Please, if you can, vote NO on proposition 35, the CASE Act.  The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has a very informative short page about why. Basically, all it does is increase punishments for things that are already illegal, and massively broaden the definition of who can be jailed for anything related to sex work, as well as the definition of who must register as a life-long sex offender.

The problem is broader than the specifics of this bill. It’s not just that not all sex workers are victims. It’s not just that many of the people who do business with sex workers are landlords, roommates, and many other people–all defined as “pimps”, all to be criminalized under Prop 35. It’s not just that the threat of law means that people who could potentially help get the most serious victims out of the system–clients, other sex workers, people who run the system–will be less likely to do so.

It’s that even if “sex worker” brings “victim of sexual assault and other violence” to your mind, anyone who’s done any research knows that survivors of sexual assault rarely report. They rarely push charges, because they know the justice system is unlikely to help them; and even when they do, the process is hell. Those who report, who have evidence and press charges, are probably sacrificing their own dignity in order to prevent the attacker from preying on others. I think we all know that what survivors of sexual assault need is mostly emotional and financial support to get out of their situations and recover; not condescension, not the scorn of a slut-shaming society, and not necessarily long drawn-out trials. I’m not saying the justice system is never useful, but we know it’s not the top priority in these cases. So why, when society talks about “helping the victims of sex trafficking”, do policemen and judges suddenly look like a good option? Why should we vote to expand the prison system?

There are at least 2 other propositions this election that could affect the prison system: proposition 36, which makes the “3 strikes rule” slightly less horrible, so I’m for it. Proposition 34 is supposed to be a no-brainer, because it “ends the death penalty”, but it replaces it with dying in prison after a life without parole. And the money it saves is the money that would be spent letting prisoners on Death Row have their case reviewed; instead of the chance to go free, they just have a longer death.

When people make Americans feel afraid of the consequences of reducing our prison system, we must always ask, where is the commitment to finding nonviolent solutions? Arrests, jails and prisons are violent, and the trauma they cause spreads far beyond the inmates. Why do many of us associate them with safety? Why are they the first option?

Perhaps the best illustration of the California prison system is in two recent reforms.

Last month, Governor brown signed a bill that will prohibit chaining up prisoners who are giving birth.

He also signed a bill that says youth under 18, who are sentenced to die in prison (life without parole), now have a chance to get their sentences reduced to 25 years.

Again, that’s the good news. Let’s not make this grim picture worse.

For reference, the US population in 1980 was 226 million; now, it is 311 million.


Elizabeth is in the middle of seeking a PhD in mathematics. She is also interested in queer rights and social justice, music, Irish dancing, climbing trees and any number of things.

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5 thoughts on “Just Say NO to More Prison Violence

  1. Peter says:

    Thanks for taking the (correct, in my humble opinion, but) unpopular stance on 35. It’s not an easy position to publicly take

    As for 34, it’s worth remembering that California has executed about 15 inmates since capital punishment was reinstated while a similar number committed suicide and dozens more died naturally. 34 thus probably won’t change much in the status quo for death row inmates, but it will reduce legal costs going forward — which in turn could be invested in constructive efforts like better schools (or even better prison conditions).

  2. Sasha says:

    I’m honestly shocked by this article. I am your typical liberal vegetarian Californian. I spent the summer clerking for a Prisoner’s Civil Rights Legal Clinic. Which means I worked in prisons every day, one on one, with prisoners abused by our awful system. I met some incredible people.

    But I can’t believe the naivete in the statement “instead of the chance to go free, they just have a longer death.” I can’t believe the disregard for the fact that these people have committed violent, dangerous, heinous crimes. Many of them, rightly or wrongly, are beyond help from a perfect or imperfect system. The death penalty is wrong. But there IS a need in our society for incarceration.

    It serves four purposes. One, retribution, often called victims’ rights. You may disagree with punishment for a wrong done to another person (when not cruel or unusual). Fine. But in hurting another person, you sacrifice your right to certain freedoms or privileges in our society.

    Deterrence. Most people understand consequences follow actions–and losing your life in prison is equally as effective as capital punishment. In prop 34’s case, these are people who have not only murdered, but committed another felony in conjunction, and in a particularly heinous or “aggravating” manner, usually torture or rape. If the threat of punishment stops someone from committing a crime, then the law is successful.

    Three, rehabilitation, or the chance to reinvent oneself. I know the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does neither of the above at an astronomically ridiculous price to California. This is the area that desperately needs improvement!

    Three, and I think the most important, public safety (or isolating dangerous people from those they could hurt). The problem with the amendment to the three strikes law is that these are repeat offenders. **The problem with Prop 36 is that it shows NO UNDERSTANDING of how the the plea bargain system works.** Violent offenders often plead to lesser, non-violent felonies, which relieves the overwhelmed court system. They are also commonly charged with non-violent felonies for informing on other criminals or gang activity. These are the people Prop 36 will release. It will not save our system money–the freed offenders will simply reoffend and cost our failing court and jail system (not to mention the people they will murder or steal from or rape).

    The solution to a terrible prison system is not to let the criminals go free. It’s to protect the public from dangerous criminals while rehabilitating them HUMANELY to reenter society as productive individuals. Protecting society is the key purpose of this system–so job training/education and mental health care should be our first priority, not releasing dangerous criminals because our system is run by prison guard unions and a bankrupt state.

    I suppose my question is–if you don’t believe in life imprisonment, if you believe that people should be allowed to commit more than three felonies and still walk free–where on earth do you draw the line? What are the consequences for torture, murder, rape? How do you propose to keep California safe?

    • esqg says:

      I have not stated my beliefs about life imprisonment, or even about how I’ll vote on Prop 34. It is nevertheless true that “life without parole” means “die in prison”.

      As for “three felonies”, I assume you’re referring to Prop 36, and if you’ve worked with prisoners’ rights you should know better than that! You should know how often people’s “third strike” is a very minor, offense and how much the rule is just good for “cleaning the streets”.

      I’m not proposing uniform solutions, although I could certainly name a few components. You said rehab, right, we are in dire need of that; harm reduction when it comes to the dangers associated with heroin and other drugs, addressing the reasons people do violent or property crimes in the first place, the discrimination that causes some people to be jailed versus others, and so on. The point is this country, this state, needs to have a commitment to using non-violent solutions whenever possible. Am I supposed to single-handedly say what the results would look like?

      A start on making this commitment would be if we, dominant US culture or large parts of it, automatically recognized that prisons are bad. Sounds simple, but right now I keep seeing a reflex reaction to classify people as “criminals” and think in terms of what they “deserve”. We don’t think in terms of what would make them take responsibility for their own actions, and like you said about rehab, about how to make them part of a community.

      Victims’ rights are not one of the primary purposes of the system. In criminal cases, as opposed to civil cases, the State is acting first to protect itself. For example, victims of theft don’t get repaid, unless they have handled that on their own with insurance. And for retribution, does it always help a victim, and is it always worth the drawn-out process, the further disruption in their life? Does it help a community? People sometimes decide it isn’t worth it, and get pressured into testifying in cases. Look that up: pressure on undocumented immigrants to testify.

      As for “deterrence”: obviously deterrence has some useful effects. But a wide variety of less violent consequences could also be deterrents. Deterrence alone isn’t enough to overcome desperation, and it isn’t enough to overcome lifetimes of trauma and learning that the system is already against you anyway. Deterrence also has vastly different effects on different people, because the laws are not applied fairly: they are usually enforced by people with power on others with less power. The consequences of large-scale robbery and gross neglect, i.e. “white-collar crime”, are laughably trivial in terms of how well they deter people. And there are many many harmful things that people with enough privilege can do legally, or so that it’s too hard to prove it’s illegal. That’s not just “a flaw” in the justice system–that’s how the system perpetuates inequality.

      Finally, what is “your typical liberal vegetarian Californian”? If there’s a “typical” image that comes to my mind with those words, it’s a class-privileged person who never gives critical thought to the racism, queerphobic injustice, and other problems contributing to and perpetuated by the prison system. Of course there are many people who do not fit that description, and I’m not saying that’s actually you, since I don’t believe we’ve met. But don’t claim a “liberal” identity like it’s some kind of card to play; it doesn’t make your arguments any better.

    • esqg says:

      Oh finally, re “public safety”: prisons introduce trauma and violence into communities. They traumatize prisoners, families, everyone who cares about them, and everyone who is afraid of suffering the same consequences. They are violent and in them there is a lot more violence, as you have acknowledged. That violence has ripple effects: people who are treated violently will so often reproduce violent dynamics on others. People who are simply afraid will tend to treat each other badly, both the people they are afraid of, and the the people they are close to. What so much use of prisons does, combined with the classism and racism and other discriminations going into how they are used, is to reinforce cultural hierarchies using violence. That affects our ability, as a country, to listen and cooperate among each other, and really to get anything done at all.

      Of course I see this as a moral issue, but these are pragmatic reasons why the prison system is terrible. There are so many invisible costs to our prison system, that we cannot see because we have never lived without it. Though, we can compare to other countries; there are a lot of variables to account for in those cases, and I am impressed whenever someone does these comparisons very well.

  3. Anna McConnell says:

    Thanks for writing this Elizabeth! I especially appreciate your commentary on Prop 34: “Proposition 34 is supposed to be a no-brainer, because it “ends the death penalty”, but it replaces it with dying in prison after a life without parole. And the money it saves is the money that would be spent letting prisoners on Death Row have their case reviewed; instead of the chance to go free, they just have a longer death.” This is absolutely the case, and we need to realize that sometimes electoral politics offers us no chance to challenge the status quo.

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