Do some prisoners matter more than others?

Walla Walla Penitentiary prison boundary

I stumbled across a blog post asking this question earlier this week. The author, S.E. Smith, notes that prison reform advocates tend to talk almost exclusively about nonviolent drug offenders when discussing prison reform and the rights of prisoners:

So when we talk about prison reform, many people shy away from talking about murderers and rapists and their rights, as well as the fact that they deserve justice. Despite the fact that the racial disparities seen in nonviolent drug convictions, robberies, and similar crimes are also seen with rape and murder, there’s an unwillingness to engage with issues like the possibility of profiling, false conviction, harsher sentences because of an offender’s race, and the myriad complicating factors that interfere with true equality for prisoners in the US, all of whom do in fact deserve human rights, no matter what their crimes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve spent a good chunk of time at the Washington State Penitentiary this year. A friend of mine (my first childhood babysitter, actually) is serving a 15 year sentence there for armed robbery (he was initially sentenced to 20 and got 5 knocked off because the length was ruled cruel and unusual punishment). Like me, he’s from Seattle and his family and friends are there or further away, so he doesn’t have regular visitors. Since the prison is right in Walla Walla, where I’m living, I try to visit him once every few weeks.*

By and large, Robbie is not who people talk about when they talk about prison reform or justice for prisoners. By his own admission, he carried a gun into a store and shot a few people in the process of trying to rob it. He didn’t kill anyone, and injuries were fairly minor, but his crime certainly wasn’t a victimless one.

Reconnecting with Robbie after years of not seeing him took a little while. After initially attending a powwow for indigenous inmates at Coyote Ridge, the last prison he was in, our early visits in Walla Walla mostly involved playing Scrabble (he’s really good from a couple months reading the Scrabble dictionary, but I’m terrible) or Sorry (where I fare better). But now, we often just talk for an hour or two.

He tells me about his classes, how he’s due to finish his AA next quarter, the papers he has to write and the readings they discuss in class. I tell him about my job and the roller derby team I’m on, and he complains that the other guys on his team can’t play soccer as well as he can, which cost them the championship last season. We talk about our families, who haven’t seen each other in years—who’s working where, which side of the world our siblings are on.

We’ve also talked a lot about how he’s changed since getting locked up. He’s told me he’s learned to be less impulsive, to avoid fights and other bad situations, to keep his thinking positive. He works in the kitchen most mornings, takes classes and is part of a group of indigenous men who do traditional bead work and other crafts. He’s also involved in the prison’s teddy bear program, which sews bears to donate to homeless children and elderly people.

After a year and a half of letter writing and about six months of regular visits, we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. Now, our conversations are often about what he’s doing to do once released. Robbie’s been in prison since about 2001, when he was just 19. He’s told me that there’s a saying that “prison preserves you,” meaning you stay acting roughly the age you were when you went in, no matter how long ago that was. Though he’s nearly 30, he jokes around and acts like he’s my age, but he’s also aware that in about two and a half years, he’ll be out on the streets. He hopes to go back to school and become a veterinarian.

Prison reform conversations often talk about the cost of keeping people behind bars. Drug crimes are victimless, treatment is cheaper, and we could really save taxpayers a lot of money if we treated drug addiction as a public health issue instead of a crime issue.

All of those statements are statements I agree with, but the more I hear them, the more I think they still fit within the logic of prisons as they exist now. Prison is just punishment for a crime. It’s what’s deserved, what’s fair. Nonviolent drug offenders allow us to make the case that these people aren’t truly “criminal” and therefore don’t belong in prison. That position doesn’t engage with a lot of questions I’ve thinking about, like: How can a person spend a decade and a half behind bars, miss the rise of laptops, tablets, smartphones and social networking, and be expected to get a good job that pays the bills when they get out?

I haven’t talked to Robbie much about his thoughts on incarceration as a whole, or how “fair” he feels his sentence was, if that’s something that can really be discussed at all. I don’t want to speak for him or try to make sweeping political claims based on our friendship, and I’m not sure I could even say what those claims would be. I know nothing I’m saying here, personal details aside, is especially original. But that blog post spoke to a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having since Robbie and I got back in touch, and I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder that there are many types of prisoners out there, all of whom deserve to be included in conversations about justice and human rights behind bars.

*Rachel’s note: I would hope this goes without saying, but I’ve gotten Robbie’s permission to write about him and our friendship.