“‘No one enters violence for the first time by committing it,’” says Mariame Kaba, a Chicago-based organizer, educator, and founder of the grassroots organization Project NIA, which works to end youth incarceration. Reflecting on the words of Danielle Sered, Kaba considers how harm is reproduced and re-cycled throughout society while examining the complexities embedded in the binary terms of “victims” and “perpetrators.” This binary, in all its complexity, undergirds and upholds the criminal legal system in the United States. 

According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently 2 million people in prisons and jails in America alone, marking a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years of the nation’s history. Considering this exponential expansion of the penal system, one may wonder: has mass incarceration improved public safety? Humanities councils across the country are initiating conversations to find out. 

In dialogue with Monica Mueller, a senior instructor of philosophy at Portland State University; Bobbin Singh, executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center; david rogers, a program officer for the Ford Foundation and former executive director of ACLU of Oregon; and Rene Denfeld, author and criminal investigator, Oregon Humanities recently dove into this topic on their podcast, The Detour. In this episode titled “The Punishment Paradigm,” listeners consider the societal “ideas around punishment, accountability, and justice, and explore how those show up or don’t in our court and prison systems.” 

Bobbin Singh contextualizes the criminal legal system as it operates today:

It disproportionately impacts certain communities…it is a manifestation of white supremacy and institutional racism…I mean, it’s really about controlling and creating this idea that we’re going to be safer by removing [certain] people from society, locking them away, disconnecting them, and then forgetting about them…I think it really rests on this fundamental myth of public safety, and it only is able to happen because we actually know very little about our criminal justice system.

Host and Oregon Humanities executive director Adam Davis poses the question to panelists: “What are the arguments for a prison system, and are any of them convincing?”

rogers notes the misapplication of “accountability” in backing arguments for prisons. “There’s a difference between accountability and punishment. And the truth is that our criminal justice system is really about the punishment paradigm. It’s not about accountability at all,” says rogers. 

So what is accountability and why is it important? rogers explains,

Accountability is when people acknowledge the harm that they’ve done, they show some remorse, that they’ve taken some effort to repair the harm if that’s possible, and do the hard work to transform their lives so that they don’t create that harm again. 

And to be clear, punishment is not all that. It’s passive. The only thing that you need to do to accept punishment is not escape it….And when you lock people in cages, to be clear, there is nothing to allow people to do the personal transformation, to rebuild their lives, to be better on the outside. So we talk about accountability, but that’s not what’s happening.

Engaging and raising awareness of this issue, Illinois Humanities recently introduced a new initiative that “works with communities and people impacted by mass incarceration to spark conversation and illuminate community-based strategies that address our racist and unjust criminal legal system.”

Earlier this year, the council launched Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION, a new digital exhibition and activation kit that centers the arts and humanities “to imagine a future without mass incarceration.” This resource was created by Illinois-based artists and humanists and offers a host of visual art works, creative writing, music, film, scholarship, prompts, and activities to help viewers understand the punishment paradigm on a deeper level. Participants are invited to engage and examine the impacts of the criminal legal system on personal, local, and global scales. Whether engaging as an individual or with a group, Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION creates space for reflection, education, healing, and imagination. 

One prompt from the activation guide titled “Truth, Facts, Reality | Stories, Claims, Lies” invites individuals to consider the role of the media “in disseminating and normalizing the stories told by law enforcement in order to cover for their own misconduct, clear cases, and land convictions — even when those stories are unsubstantiated.” Created by journalist Maya Dukmasova, this exercise asks participants to conduct their own research and “read between the lines to reach the core of an article.”

Another exercise titled “Breath Scores” by Patricia Nguyen invites participants “to explore the power of breath as an embodied meditation with the lived experiences of survivors of police torture and state-sanctioned violence.” Rooted in Black radical tradition and Buddist philosophy, Nguyen’s series of breathing scores offer “a chance for us to return to our bodies as a way of learning and knowing” while reading excerpts from interviews with torture survivors and witnessing the emotions and sensations that emerge from the body.

The exhibition installation “Recipes for Life: A Legacy Cookbook” by Janice Bond and Sonja Henderson offers written reflections and family recipes from mothers who have lost children to violence. In the opening, the creators note that “experiences of profound loss due to mass incarceration, state violence, and other violent events, illness and the cycle of life may change or transform our relationships to foods and celebration. ‘Recipes for Life’ is a reconnection to our cherished loved ones through recalling their favorite foods and shared stories.”

In 2022, as global crises have ruptured, revealed, and reverberated some of society’s deepest wounds, re-imagining “justice” has become increasingly urgent. Exhausted by the unpredictability of a pandemic, police violence, mounting political and economic threats, climate disasters, and domestic terrorism, communities across the globe are reeling. At the same time, they are eager to connect, converse, and reorient themselves to new possibilities beyond the punishment paradigm. 

As stated in Envisioning Justice, “the future is a community project, and the arts and humanities help to bring it into focus. By engaging with new ideas and ways of being, we can expand our collective understanding and create a new future that is restorative and just for all.”

Written by Jazzy DiMeglio