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To Dismantle the Prison System, We Need Viral Justice

My younger brother, Jamal, and I grew up the same. Same home, same parents, same neighborhoods. But as a young Black man, the police have been chasing him all our lives. “Chasing” is the wrong word. Hunting…he is hunted. Tender meat feeding a rapacious quota system—another deer head an officer can mount on his wall.

In his late teens, Jamal began showing signs of mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia—we weren’t sure yet. Things came to a head after he had gone missing and we found him collapsed, dehydrated, and emaciated, after hearing voices that told him not to eat. My brother is over six feet tall, and when we located him, he weighed less than 100 pounds.
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A few years went by; then, during one of his episodes, Jamal grabbed a woman sitting next to him on the bus and held her for a few seconds in a bear hug. The woman screamed and my brother let go. But suddenly the bus driver stopped the bus, and cops boarded and arrested my brother for attempted kidnapping.

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The cops took Jamal to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, L.A. County’s notorious jail. With nearly 20,000 employees, including more than 10,000 sworn deputies, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is the largest sheriff’s department in the world, and its website boasts that the Twin Towers are “the nation’s largest mental health facility.” But after being caged in the Twin Towers, Jamal was so traumatized that he couldn’t stand trial.

The Twin Towers, where approximately 15,000 people await trial, yet to be convicted of any crime, is part of what has become known as the “Abu Ghraib of Los Angeles.” In a 2011 report titled Cruel and Unusual Punishment: How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls LA County Jails, the ACLU’s National Prison Project spells out a “pattern of brutal abuse…which at times crossed the line into torture.” The report includes eyewitness testimony of Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies humiliating prisoners with sexual and racial epithets, and punching, kicking, and beating non-resisting inmates to the point of their needing surgery and hospitalization. It is a level of inhumanity that observers say exceeds even that of maximum-security prisons.

After reviewing testimony by inmates, former inmates, chaplains, and civilians, as well as reports, correspondence, media articles, and legal filings, even Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent who worked in the bureau’s Los Angeles Field Office, came to a damning conclusion: “Of all the jails I have had the occasion to visit, tour, or conduct investigations within, domestically and internationally, I have never experienced any facility exhibiting the volume and repetitive patterns of violence.” Now imagine your own loved one trapped inside this den of brutality.

Jamal was held in Twin Towers for several weeks before he was sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County for three months to be medicated so that he could take the stand. He was brought back to the Twin Towers, and it was several more weeks before he was brought before a judge, who eventually ruled that it wasn’t a criminal case that needed to go to trial.

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At the hearing, when the judge asked the woman on the bus whether Jamal had hurt her in any way, she said no, that he had held her for a few seconds. In that moment, she seemed remorseful that it had come to this. The judge, in turn, ordered that my brother be admitted into a mental health facility for one year followed by several more years of court-mandated psychiatric treatment. In exchange for an unwanted hug, our punishing institutions squeezed their tentacles around Jamal tighter and tighter.

The day my brother’s criminal record was eventually expunged felt bittersweet. It came after years of harassment, profiling, jail, imprisonment, shame, trauma, and so much more that typing these words reignites a burning rage. Is it possible to wipe off a brand? How else can I describe the “mark of a criminal record,” as the sociologist Devah Pager calls it, but as a modern-day brand? Rub…rub…rub… as much as you can, the scar left behind refuses to disappear.

Read More: Lessons From a Half-Century of Reporting on Race in America

Each time the carceral system brands a loved one, an entire family is marked. We feel the iron of a vicious system whose appetite seems limitless. When the beast decided it had had enough, it spit my brother back out. Record expunged. But not before forcing him to sit for years in its repulsive belly, corroding his spirit and consuming his mind. The stench of that beast snakes around us, tightening and releasing, squeezing and pulsing in what clinicians term post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression.

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In an essay titled “Collateral Damage,” sociologist Alyasah Sewell and public health researcher Kevin Jefferson explain, “People do not have to be inside the criminal justice system to feel the effects of the criminal justice system. In fact, the surveillance policies of the criminal justice system reach so far as to shape the health of people who have not yet entered into its gates.” Is it any wonder that the health of entire communities is adversely affected by being criminalized? Higher blood pressure, higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and more—health conditions born of a ritualized pattern of terror and trauma. Even when we are not the prey, we feel hunted.

So, what is there to do? How do we create justice that is not just vital, but also infectious?

The concept of “viral justice” offers a fresh orientation, a way of looking at (or looking again) at all the ways people are working, little by little, day by day, to combat unjust systems and build alternatives to the oppressive status quo. It invites us to witness how an idea or action that sprouts in one place may be adopted, adapted, and diffused elsewhere. Rather than a strict focus on macro processes and “structural change,” viral justice reminds us how individual volition maintains or transforms the status quo. Social systems, after all, rely on each of us playing along or questioning the rules of the game.

Transforming the rules in this context is not about police reform. Instead, it refers to the upending of an entire system—the gradual abolition of an institution born of slave patrols, one that protects property over people, and is kept alive by the myths of virtuosity and necessity. But those larger goals take shape in the small print of city, state, and federal budgets where individuals, groups, and coalitions—like the Seattle Solidarity Budgetare calling for investment in social goods like housing, education, work, and community.

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Viral justice is also about creating communities of care—articulating the kind of world we want out there in our relationships and interactions with strangers and friends right here. It requires that we answer educator and abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s vital question: “What else can we grow instead of punishment and suffering?”

Last month, I spoke at the Fifth Annual #FreeHer Conference in Detroit, Michigan, organized by the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. Those gathered are engaged in a range of organizing efforts including mass clemencies for women who are aging, sick, survivors of sexual violence, and those who have served decades already—those hunted, captured, and maimed by the system. They are fighting for housing, counseling, higher education, and other support services for people returning from prison. They are advocating against the construction of new jails and prisons, including “pressuring architectural firms not to bid on the multimillion-dollar job.” For example, in Massachusetts, formerly incarcerated women got the state legislature to pass a bill, which now sits on the governor’s desk, imposing a five-year moratorium on any new construction.

This is viral justice at work. Starting in their own backyards, those gathered at the #FreeHer Conference are working with neighbors, friends, and family members—like the mother-daughter duo who co-founded Families for Justice as Healing—to uproot the soul-sucking conditions that tear us apart and seed the resources that we all need to thrive.

#FreeHer reminds us that the work of crafting more caring social relations isn’t charity work or work to be done on behalf of others. Falling from a burning building, I might hit the ground first, but you won’t be far behind. My wellbeing is intimately bound up with yours. We don’t need allies—we need everyone to smell the smoke. Together, we can change our world from one in which our loved ones are hunted, our families torn apart, and our communities surveilled, to one in which people like my brother, like me, and like you will be fully embraced and empowered.

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Excerpted from VIRAL JUSTICE: How We Grow the World We Want by Ruha Benjamin. Copyright © 2022 by permission of Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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