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Healed people heal people

Jessie jokes with his dad. Jessie wrote to Briarpatch: ‘Growing up, my dad was in prison. When I got a life sentence, he changed his life and stayed out and has been my support. This picture is me mimicking my nieces, who pull on his beard – it’s something I never got to do as a kid...’

‘Can you imagine a world without prisons?’

Yes, I can, but it was difficult at first because these cages have been a part of my life since the age of five when police kicked in our door, took my dad to jail and left me with my mom who was suffering from a heroin addiction. In a world without prisons, my dad would have gotten help instead of a cage and my mom would have gotten treatment instead of being left alone to raise me.

In a world without prisons, young people won’t feel like they have to kill themselves because the prosecutor won’t offer them a plea that’s less than a 25-year-to-life prison sentence.

In a world without prisons, people will only be put in a safe room until they are coherent, sober, and stable. Then treatment would begin immediately. A professional will assess the breakdown in reasoning or logic that led to the crime and create a plan, including the victim’s and offender’s family, to set them on a path to healing. All parties should be asked what they want, what they need. We should be willing to put the full amount of money that we previously spent on incarceration toward this new system. It would perpetuate a new, healthier society that would prosper over the long term. Parents would be there for their children. Siblings would be there to be role models and support each other. Healed people heal people.

I’d like you to know, world, that 365 days is a long time. That’s an average of 30 important family events – birthdays, graduations, doctor’s visits, holidays – all without you. This absence leaves holes in the lives and hearts of our families while we sit in prison far away. A decade is a long time and so is half a decade. It’s enough time to earn a college degree and graduate from five different rehabilitation programs, go to therapy and become a new person. Studies show a bachelor’s degree reduces the rate of recidivism to less than five per cent, while a master’s degree reduces it to zero. So it would make more sense to sentence someone to education instead of prison.

Of course, people will come back to prison if we don’t help them to be better. We say things like, ‘That’s their fault, they made the choice, what are we gonna do – hold their hand?’ Well, yes, what’s wrong with that? Sometimes holding someone’s hand can save a life.

I wish someone would have grabbed my hand and said, ‘Come on, let’s go this way, Jessie.’

My cousin was killed when I was little. He was like my big brother and it destroyed my worldview. The guy who killed him, I heard, was a cop’s son and no charges were ever filed. My cousin’s name was Anthony Northrup. What did we need as a family for us to heal? We didn’t need the murderer in prison; we needed him to say he was sorry and to see the hole he created in our life, to develop remorse and change so he would not take another life.

When you offend someone, the first thing you owe them is an apology, and then you have a duty to understand why you did what you did, so that you can make sure it doesn’t happen again. Then you should have a conversation, asking the victim what can be done to help them heal, aside from vengeance. We should avoid vengeance for a couple of reasons: one, it is costly, at up to $70,000 a year to cage one person in the US; and two, vengeance doesn’t help anyone heal – in fact, it perpetuates the cycle. Unhealed wounds fester and get worse, they manifest themselves in all sorts of unhealthy ways like addiction, anger, and depression. Little children grow up angry at the world and, without the tools to cope, they repeat the cycle. Imagine what that $70,000 a year for each prisoner could do elsewhere. Imagine if we redirected that toward the 270,000 homeless kids in California alone?

We promulgate the myth that incarceration is necessary to keep this dangerous person off the street, but I haven’t assaulted anyone during my entire 18 years in prison. It’s not that I can’t – I just choose not to because it is not who I am. Yet, around $1.2 million has been spent to cage me thus far. And there are 128,000 other people in California prisons, not including the county jails, federal institutions and juvenile detention centres. True crime prevention would be to invest in our communities and create better futures for us all.

Unhealed wounds fester and get worse, they manifest themselves in all sorts of unhealthy ways like addiction, anger, and depression

During Covid-19, the topic of prisoner healthcare has been front and centre, but it always seems strange to me that the state has sent us here to die and now people are concerned about our health. The biggest threat to my health and wellbeing is my 174-year-to-life prison sentence. Incarceration has long been a pandemic. It’s part of a culture of devaluing human life, which includes referring to us as ‘defendant’, ‘offender’, ‘criminal’, or my favourite, ‘suspect’. An officer told me last week, ‘You choose the crime, you choose the punishment!’ I told him that sounds like a guy I know who used to beat his wife then say, ‘If she didn’t want to get beat, she wouldn’t have stayed out late’. It’s terminology used to justify abuse.

I’d also like society to change how they refer to prisoners as ‘violent offenders’, ‘non-violent offenders’, or ‘drug offenders’. The crime a person committed 20 years ago is not indicative of who they are today – it’s what they did and not who they are. So how about we refer to who they are today – for instance, to release me, you would say: ‘Let’s release the kitchen cook, who’s Christian, has straight As in college, is always positive, and values his family and kindness.’

We can’t base laws on emotion. Members of my family have been murdered and nothing will bring them back. Sadly, my uncle was killed on 17 September 2020, allegedly by my nephew. I was heartbroken but I don’t wish prison on him; it doesn’t help or make the pain go away. I wish remorse on him – I wish that he change and love himself so he can love others. If we can see ourselves in each other, then we can get beyond the blame and vengeance. If I can see your son as my son, and you can see my son as your son, and the murderer and victim – each of them as human – then we can build a better world, a more loving world, where treatment is valued over vengeance, people get help instead of death or cages, our resources are used to care for the least of us and no children are homeless tonight in our city, our town, our world.

This is a shorter version of a piece first published in the September-October 2021 edition of Briarpatch magazine which was written by imprisoned people across Canada and the US.

Jessie Milo is incarcerated in California. Sign and share the petition to free Jessie.

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