Saturday, July 13, 2024

Building empathy and compassion through prison visits

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I vividly recall the sensation of sitting in a courtroom.  I was young, terrified, and just 16-years-old, and I was shackled both physically and emotionally. It remains etched in my memory how the prosecutor branded me a monster, someone beyond redemption, and deemed me worthy of a lifetime behind bars. At that moment, I viewed the prosecutor as a monster as well, an anonymous figure who knew nothing about me or my background except for my crime–the worst thing I’ve ever done. 

It never occurred to me that 30 years later I would be collaborating so closely with prosecutors. Today, I’m working with the Prosecutors Alliance of California to make sure that when District Attorneys across the state look across the aisle at those they’re seeking to hold accountable, that they don’t see monsters–they see people.  We’re working together to ensure District Attorneys know about the prisons they’re sending those they prosecute.  And together, we’re bringing about positive change within the criminal legal system.

In 1994, I was sentenced to 19 years to life in state prison. I would go on to spend 21 years of my life behind bars at Pelican Bay, eight of those years in solitary confinement. It was during this time that I embarked on a journey of self-reflection, striving to understand my actions, the pain I had caused, and the system that had condemned me. In this crucible of isolation, my perspective began to shift, and I realized the need for mutual understanding and empathy between those who prosecute and those who cause harm.

Today, as an advocate for reform, I am working on a transformative idea that might seem radical at first: taking prosecutors behind prison gates to meet with incarcerated people. In facilitating visits that immerse prosecutors in the reality of incarceration, we foster understanding, empathy, and compassion between those who broke the law and those that enforce it.

Prosecutors are entrusted with an immense responsibility: to uphold justice and protect society. However, to fulfill this duty effectively, they must not only comprehend the law and work to advance justice for victims, but also understand the individuals whose lives they influence. Unfortunately, prosecutors rarely know the backgrounds of defendants and most prosecutors have never stepped foot inside a prison. We hope to change that.

These visits offer an opportunity for dialogue between prosecutors and  incarcerated people, allowing for genuine conversations that transcend the barriers of judgment and stigma. Sharing stories, experiences, and perspectives can help humanize both parties, eroding the preconceived notions that often breed animosity and mistrust.

Empathy is the cornerstone of a fair and just legal system. Witnessing the resilience and personal growth that can occur within prison walls might challenge prosecutors’ assumptions about the potential for rehabilitation and reintegration. 

Moreover, these visits expose prosecutors to the systemic flaws that perpetuate cycles of crime and recidivism. They witness the overcrowded cells, the lack of access to education and mental health resources, and the limited opportunities for redemption. People can and do change despite the shortage of programs and services in prisons, but they can undoubtedly get there sooner if prisons were adequately structured and resourced to actively foster rehabilitation. This first-hand experience can instill a sense of urgency and motivate prosecutors to advocate for necessary reforms within the criminal justice system.

The “monster” narrative perpetuated in courtrooms serves neither the pursuit of justice nor rehabilitation. Just as I embarked on a journey of self-reflection and growth behind bars, prosecutors can similarly evolve and embrace a more holistic view of the individuals they prosecute.

The path towards justice and safety lies in understanding the root causes of crime, addressing systemic issues, and promoting the rehabilitation of  incarcerated people. Prison visits can be a catalyst for this education, laying the foundation for collaborative criminal justice reform. Ultimately, to make better decisions about appropriate case outcomes, every prosecutor should be willing to see firsthand the places they send those they prosecute. 

Artie Gonzales is program director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California.

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