† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
by Kay Whitlock
“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”
Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.
It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.
And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.
That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.
But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.
This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.
The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.
- It’s the image deployed to justify the mainstream nature of mass incarceration, police shootings of unarmed people of color, long-term solitary confinement, other forms of torture, and the CIA’s covert, extrajudicial use of rendition.
- It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
- It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
- It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
- It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.
So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.
The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?
What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?
The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).
Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.