Last Friday, as the “The Judgment of Paris” media circus filled our airwaves (those very airwaves which, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently reminded us in an intelligent New York Times op-ed, belong to us, the people), I emailed Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, and one of the smartest criminal justice reformers and activists working in the field today. I figured if anyone had something insightful and humane to say about this uber-tabloid moment—and what it revealed about the failures of our criminal justice system–it would be Gaynes.
For more than two decades, she has led the Osborne Association—working with prisoners, former prisoners, their children, and other family members to help them reenter the workplace, rebuild their families and rejoin their communities. Today, Osborne staff provides services —- parenting education, job training, mental health and family counseling, HIV prevention–that help transform the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.
As Gaynes reminded me, today Osborne provides services in *more* prisons than existed when she began working in prisons– soon after the Attica uprising of 1971. (In 1971, 12,000 people were crowded into 12 prisons in New York state; today New York has nearly 70 prisons and more than 60,000 men and women in them.) “Prison and perpetual punishment” should not be “our heavy weapons for the war on crime and war on drugs,” Gaynes insists. Those “weapons,” she argues” are designed for fighting the last war.” (For more about the Osborne Association’s invaluable work, go to Osborneny.org and full disclosure–I am a board member.)
Gaynes’ reply, which I am posting below, seems to me a thoughtful antidote to so much of the sensationalistic media commentary surrounding Paris Hilton’s brief incarceration.
“Overall, I thought Jon Stewart named it right: ‘Shaw-Skank Redemption.'” But seriously, I do think it actually exposes rather virulent assumptions within American vengeance…..There is theSharpton line, that she should go to jail because her privilege does not get a Get-Out-of-Jail Free card. Also, progressives, aware of the ridiculous disparities of race and class within the criminal justice system, seem to get great pleasure out of people of privilege going to jail. But if we take the position – which I certainly have – that jail should be reserved for only those for whom there is no alternative and should be designed with treatment to address the behaviors that led to the infraction, then 23 days in jail is surely pointless.