Under threat of having a misdemeanor slapped on your criminal record, Utah has been ordered to “stay home, stay safe.” They clearly tried to put as positive a spin on it as possible. To be clear, we are under a statewide lockdown or house arrest. Why? A virus. Yes, a virus much like the common cold or the flu. What is the difference with COVID-19? Fear. Fear has fueled society’s reaction to this virus. Society tends to fear what it doesn’t understand or what it wants to control. Fear is a powerful motivator and it is fueled by ignorance.
When I was young, I remember riding in the car with my dad. As we neared the end of a long road trip, we were on I-15 coming over the point of the mountain. It was late at night and everything seemed funny to me that late at night. I remember seeing a sign on the side of the road forbidding cars from stopping to pick up hitchhikers because the state correctional facility was located at that exit. The stark buildings, the three rows deep of high chainlink fences, and the razor wire were hard to miss. I remember laughing and joking about the sign. I am ashamed to admit that I made several jokes out of ignorance that I deeply regret. Although I was very young and was mostly poking fun at the sign, had I truly been aware – even that would have been curbed.
As I drive by Utah State Prison now, my perspective is completely different. I gaze over at the rows of razor wire in sad disbelief that mass incarceration is society’s solution for an epidemic – an epidemic caused by addiction, mental illness, social disconnect, ignorance, as well as economic, physical, and emotional disparity.
Mass incarceration is an epidemic.
COVID-19 is a pandemic.
Society’s reaction to both has been virtually identical.
Take a moment to reflect on the impact that COVID-19 has had on you and the individuals who are closest to you. Now take it a step further and consider the impact that COVID-19 has had on society. A large percentage of the world is on house-arrest, social distancing prevents anyone from getting within 6 feet of each other, civil and religious rights have been revoked, personal and family connections have been broken, millions of people are out of work, over-reacting and panic has compounded the problem further by leaving grocery store shelves stripped and bare, the economy is in shambles, and fear and control are prevalent. The emotional and mental health of countless lives is being ravaged by isolation, depression, stress, anxiety, and an overall absence of hope. In short, the world is getting just a small glimpse of what it feels like to be incarcerated with an indeterminate sentence.
A virus is a virus. We don’t tend to fear the common cold or the flu like we have been conditioned to fear COVID-19 because we understand it. We understand what causes it and we understand what makes it better. Individuals sometime die from the flu, but we still seem to work through it.
A person is a person. Period.
Sadly, we have been conditioned to fear individuals with certain challenges. Maybe we don’t fully understand them and that scares us. Perhaps we or someone we love has been hurt. It could be that we would rather sweep the matter under the rug than acknowledge our own contribution to and shortcomings in the situation. It is, after all, much easier to make jokes about the improbability of picking up a hitchhiker on I-15 dressed in his finest whites with UDC INMATE stamped across his back and down his right pant leg in bold, black lettering as I did when I was a kid. It is another matter entirely to accept responsibility for society’s contribution to the mass incarceration epidemic.
In our efforts to “protect” or prevent “anything bad from happening to anyone” we are causing more damage than we realize – just like we are witnessing in the COVID-19 pandemic. To put this in perspective once again, in an extremely short amount of time, the economy has collapsed, emotional and mental health has plummeted, interpersonal relationships are being crushed, and violence has increased as a result of society’s “solution” to the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of mass incarceration on the individual as well as his/her family and friends is exponentially more destructive and devastating than the COVID-19 pandemic. I have personally been affected by these destructive and devastating effects.
I have never met a finer group of human beings than the ones that society has locked up and written off. Unfortunately, society only sees the labels it has branded them with: drug offender, sex offender, felon, murderer, con, manipulator, criminal. But that is not who they are. They have hopes and dreams, they have struggles and fears, and they have contributions to make that will change the world in such positive and remarkable ways. We, as a society, are not complete without them and we never will be until we stop treating them like a pandemic and start treating them like the exceptional human beings that they are. We need them just like they need us.
A person is a person, and every life has infinite worth and exponential potential.