In the current world of criminal justice, the story we are told is that there is a person who causes harm, and a person who is harmed. A perpetrator and a victim. An abuser and an abused. And, more often than not, in a given instance, or in a particular situation, that may indeed be true. One person--the harmer--feels hurt, gets triggered, and becomes violent. The other--the harmed--receives that pain and then carries it with them. Sometimes, the one who harms gets locked in a cell. Sometimes, the one who is harmed does. Oftentimes, neither ever see a day inside prison. And almost never do both the harmer and harmed feel healed.
There is another story. It’s the one we try to tell at VOTE, but, like many of our peers, have trouble with. It’s complicated, and, in many ways, unfinished.
This story also begins with a person who harms and another who is harmed. Together, their story are two links in a long line of pain. Zoom out, and the chain starts to form: the person who harms was harmed by someone else, earlier. The person who was harmed then goes on to harm someone else, later--a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious cycle of retaliation. And so it continues. The chain binds us all.
In other words, hurt people hurt people. At VOTE, we know and live this phrase in our bones. We are an organization that includes people who have hurt others and spent years in prison because of it. We are an organization that includes people who have been hurt by others and have spent years in prison in spite of it. We are an organization that includes people who have both hurt people and been hurt by people and have never spent time in prison. We are all of that, and more, oftentimes in the same person.
By existing as we are, we’re complicating the story, whether we like it or not.
And why does that matter?
It matters because there are 2.3 million people sitting in prisons across the United States. This reality, known as mass incarceration, was built on the single story, the same one we started with, the one with the perpetrator and the victim. That story freezes time and assigns individuals indefinitely to one of those two roles. Individuals are incarcerated accordingly, and no one gets an opportunity to heal. Much the opposite, the trauma of incarceration adds more hurt to the pain that is already there. Instead of breaking the cycle of “hurt people hurt people,” prison makes it worse.
Since we’re halfway through Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s use domestic--or intimate partner--violence (IPV) as a case study.
At present, under the current story, only a small handful of people who cause harm to their intimate partners go to prison. Traditional Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs), which the court system usually requires abusive partners to attend, focus on punishment rather than histories of trauma, and, in turn, are not effective in getting attendees to stop abusing others.
Meanwhile, at home, the children of incarcerated abusive partners are without a parent, and the abused partners are left to raise those children alone. In these cases, closure, accountability, and true healing are rarely seen. In other words, the ‘solutions’ to DV/IPV are not solutions at all.
Several years ago, our Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques called the police, trying to find safety from her abusive partner. When they arrived on the scene, her abuser lied and told them Ariel broke his nose. Even though she had bruises and scrapes on her body, the police didn’t hear anything she was saying. Because of a previous charge on her record that she was still on probation for, they arrested her. Right after she arrived at the local jail, she was turned back around and sent to the hospital--where she should have gone in the first place--for a CT scan. After waiting for 16 hours, she was finally seen by medical professionals, and then ultimately sent back to jail.
Not long after, she was told she could go because someone had bonded her out. She walked outside to find her abuser, who had a stay away order, waiting at his car. She tried to refuse a ride, but he was not having it. He told authorities that they lived together and were both listed on the lease, even though only her and her son's names were. She tried to ask him to leave numerous times, but he would threaten her and tell her he'd only leave if the police made him. He knew, however, that based on previous experiences with the police, she was too afraid to call them and ultimately be arrested again.
Eventually, with the diligent help of friends and various social services, Ariel was able to leave her partner for good. Her story is an example of why that typical narrative of ‘victim-perpetrator' is not only unhelpful, but dangerous as a driver of mass incarceration. She was the ‘victim’, but was treated as the ‘perpetrator.’ She tried to use the justice system as it is allegedly intended--to get help--and wound up being further harmed by that very system. That system enabled, rather than restructured, her partner’s abusive patterns.
Ariel knew why her ex-partner hurt her the way he did. He had been beaten throughout his childhood. He confused love with control. He was never given the tools to learn how to heal himself.
She also never wanted anyone--herself or her partner--to go to jail. All she wanted was for him to stop hurting her, and in that moment when she called the police, that was her last resort.
Ariel, like all of us at VOTE, knows there is another way. As a team of people who have been on every side of violence, we know that creating a world of safety, justice and healing without relying on mass incarceration is extremely challenging work. Oftentimes it feels impossible. Many times, it feels like building the plane as we’re flying it. Once in a while, it works, and that becomes the ground zero for the future.
Making new worlds starts with asking new questions such as “how can we build accountable communities for the purpose of healing and repair without exiling or disposing of those who cause harm?” Next Friday, October 26, at 3pm CST, anti-violence activists Kiyomi Fujikawa, Shannon Perez-Darby, and Mariame Kaba will be hosting an online discussion on this topic. Register here, and let us know if you’re interested in watching it together! If enough people are interested, we can host a viewing at our office and discuss the content afterwards.