It is easy to list the root causes of incarceration, but our society clearly struggles to form the collective will to address them. Poverty leads to poor educational opportunities, hunger, and homelessness. These conditions, in turn, motivate children and young adults to start their own businesses, regardless of their legality. The unresolved trauma from abusive homes, serving in combat, or surviving a hurricane creates sadness, anger and various forms of spiritual damage that often lead to self-medication or erratic behavior. Addiction can be a downward spiral, and the barriers facing formerly incarcerated people make it worse. More often than not, these barriers lock them out of ever rejoining society.
In Baton Rouge, voters have an opportunity on December 8th to address these root causes by Voting “Yes” on the mental health tax proposal. If the ballot question passes, the average homeowner would be taxed $1.50/month to fund a mental health crisis stabilization center. The center would be a small antidote to the state’s billion-dollar prison system.
Many residents and police officers can clearly identify when someone “needs help,” but they have no idea what to do. Just ask the friends and family of Lamar Johnson, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in 2015. Soon thereafter, guards at the East Baton Rouge Prison beat him. Within four days he was found dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind his 3-year old son.
Many people both in and out of custody, in Baton Rouge and beyond, are seeking treatment. In Johnson’s case, the police officer was compelled to arrest him on an old warrant. The officer told Johnson that “everything happens for a reason, and I believe sincerely in my heart that you’re trying to do right.” Surely, someone in the jail felt similarly about Lamar Johnson, but had nowhere to refer him.
While the proposed treatment facility, known as The Bridge Center, is a step in the right direction, the current proposal is not without concerns. The Center needs transparency and oversight that includes the perspective of impacted community members. Public oversight of our institutions is crucial, especially for vulnerable populations such as those accused of criminal behavior. The Bridge Center’s current board should also do away with its vice chairman, Dr. Raman Singh, who had multiple marks on his record before and during his tenure as state prison medical director, which came to an end due to allegations of sexual harassment.
No single solution will be the magic salve for all that ails us, especially in a city as large as Baton Rouge. On the other hand, we can’t have an effective, multifaceted response to societal issues without putting the first brick down. It is time to stop using jails and prisons as a stow-away for what we think we can’t collectively deal with. It is time to create alternatives, and give our neighbors, police, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges a chance to actually help our community.
Early Voting is open now through December 1st, from 8am - 6pm at: