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Examining privilege

(Editor’s note: This op-ed piece was written and submitted by Truth Be Told volunteer Melissa Klein. She facilitates the PEACE program for women at the Travis County Correctional Complex. )

Every Friday morning I go to the county jail to facilitate a women’s circle. I go to hold space for a group of people who are being held hostage in circumstances that are hard to fathom for any free person. When the hour is up, I leave the jail. They don’t. Sitting before me I see mostly minority women who made mistakes. In their shoes, I may have made the same mistakes. The different outcomes of our lives can be read between skin tones and the expression in our eyes. The different outcomes of our lives boils down to one word: privilege.

We cannot keep imprisoning the most vulnerable people in our society. The ones who did not have access to adequate schooling, safe and sufficient housing, healthcare, or food. It is not enough to say that it is their fault, or that this is just the way it is. We are creative, inventive, adaptive human beings with sound minds and hearts that need to beat for justice. We can find better solutions than locking people up.

A justice system based on punishment alone is not a justice system. True justice requires a breadth of insight that extends beyond the mirrored walls of our own personal experience. It requires empathy. Without empathy, we will continue to incarcerate more people in this country than any other country in the world. The United States of America should not stand for this.

Everywhere you look in our society the fresh, vivacious breath of life is squelched by the smog of oppression. This cloud hangs low, preventing that life-giving breath from giving seed to the vision we carry in our hearts for a better world. Today more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated, primarily for nonviolent crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population with an overwhelming majority experiencing serious, untreated trauma. We need to divert funds aimed at building and maintaining prisons to programs that keep people from being locked up in the first place. We need programs that provide essential support and resources to communities suffering from generational poverty, discrimination, and a lack of resources. The majority of us receive the benefit of clean air and pubic parks, well-funded schools, opportunities for economic mobility, and streets without violence. For women in these communities, they are locked up and locked out of these luxuries long before they ever see prison bars.

Most of the women I meet are mothers. When they are carted off to jail and prison, their families are ripped apart. The limited opportunities they had for financial stability are crushed. The trauma and addictions that led them down dark roads are perpetuated. These women will be returning to our communities. When they get home, their chances of finding employment, of reestablishing a healthy family life, finding an affordable home, and accessing food and healthcare are minuscule. Those of us who are lucky enough to never have had to face the things that these women have faced should be holding their hands. We should be unlocking doors for these women, not slamming them in their faces.

Last week one woman came up to me at the end of class with tears in her eyes, and told me that she didn’t know that anyone out here cared about her or the women at the jail. Because of color and class divisions the plight of these women has largely been kept out of view of the mainstream. I let her know that though this issue may be out of sight, it is not out of mind. I let her know that there are many people in the free world working to find a better solution than locking people up like animals to be brandished as criminals for life.

These women are important parts of their communities. Their warmth, creativity and wisdom contribute nourishment to communities already lacking in resources. They are the glue and the foundation of their families. They are the leaders these communities need to rise out of the impoverished conditions they’ve been in for decades. The absence of these women from their communities means an absence of hope, and the perpetuation of generational cycles of trauma, poverty, and oppression. The practice is simply inhumane.

If you have yet to examine your own privilege, I invite you on this journey with me. Scratching beneath the surface, we see the multilayered causes of incarceration, we see the humaneness of these “criminals” and we begin to see things the way they truly are. There are solutions, and they require creativity, insight, forgiveness, and empathy. We need these solutions. We need these women.

Melissa Klein is a musician, voice coach and master’s in social work student at The University of Texas. Her website is www.Melissagailklein.com.