Our February 2021 session, “Mass Incarceration with Steven Pacheco and Dr. John Chaney,” introduced me to the work and perspectives of these advocates for incarcerated people and have the lived experiences themselves, and I’m grateful I attended this lively and candid discussion. My biggest takeaway from the session was the exploration of how we can all express solidarity with the people unjustly subjected to this oppressive system. When I think of the worst atrocities the world experiences, with mass incarceration among them, I think of our failure to enforce human rights and if there is any way to correct that. I think how we respond to human rights atrocities deeply reveals who we are as individuals and as a society. How is it that we can know of mass death, starvation, enslavement, and abuse and be either so helpless or so apathetic to it all? Perhaps even more disturbing, how is it that we don’t even know about these issues? I think about the social and cognitive challenges we face when expressing solidarity for the people that need it the most. I think about how often I fall short of this lofty, elusive, and perhaps basic goal of being an enduring, consistent and resilient ally for humanity’s essential rights. Is there even a way to truly advocate for a collective goal without eventually succumbing to the ego?
The philosopher Bertrand Russell said to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.” While I believe it is a fool’s errand to transcend the ego and that there can even be a healthy coexistence with it, I do believe Russell’s insight is both important for cultivating solidarity and exposing the limits of it. Viewing mass incarceration stereoscopically with tangible and abstract lenses, broadening our abstract, and theoretical knowledge of mass incarceration can help one become a better advocate for the people subjected to its injustice, but humans must also contend with cognitive challenges of being tribal creatures. We relate to people and stories, and more so for people we identify in our tribe. From an individual perspective, it is hard to sustain collective action for the plight of those suffering human rights atrocities because we limit our sustained aid efforts to those we consider in our tribe.
In theory, penal systems should function as a barometer of a society’s commitment to human rights. Ostensibly, people that enter the penal system have committed crimes that justifies a punishment that limits their freedoms to only the rights that are bestowed or given to individuals just for existing; therefore, whatever rights a society acknowledges or gives to an incarcerated individual represents the essential value they believe people are worth. Of course, this does not reflect reality. This logic rests on premises that societies either do not live up, deliberately ignore, or does not promote greater societal welfare; namely, an equitable and uniform interpretation and application of the law, the fairness of the laws themselves, the utility of punitive justice for societal welfare, and the commitment states make to acknowledge and respect human rights.