When you hear the words "criminal justice system," what do you think about? In this episode, we'll dig into ideas around punishment, accountability, and justice, and explore how those show up or don't in our court and prison systems. First, we'll revisit a 2018 conversation with Bobbin Singh, executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center; david rogers, a program officer for the Ford Foundation and former executive director of ACLU of Oregon; and Rene Denfeld, author and criminal investigator. Then we'll talk with Monica Mueller, a senior instructor of philosophy at Portland State University who also teaches in Oregon prisons.
Rene Denfeld is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder, The Enchanted, and The Butterfly Girl. Her literary thrillers explore themes of survival, resiliency, and redemption, and have earned starred Library Journal reviews, Indie Next picks, and glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books. Denfeld was the chief investigator at a public defender’s office in Oregon and has worked hundreds of cases, including death row exonerations and helping rape trafficking victims. In addition to her advocacy work, Denfeld has been a foster adoptive parent for over twenty-five years. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care as well as other foster kids.
david rogers is a program officer on the gender, racial, and ethnic justice team at the Ford Foundation. He has over twenty-five years of progressive social change organizing and policy advocacy experience. Prior to joining Ford, he served as executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, where he sharpened the organization’s focus on criminal justice reform. He also launched one of the country’s first comprehensive district attorney accountability campaigns. Earlier in his career, david served as executive director of Partnership for Safety and Justice. He was also the founding director of the Safety and Justice Action Fund, and he served as an executive committee member for a range of successful ballot measure campaigns to protect and advance criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice.
Bobbin Singh is the founding executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center. He believes that mass incarceration, including over-incarceration, mass conviction, and wrongful convictions, is the greatest civil rights crisis of our time and that we must all take ownership of it. He argues that for individual rights to have any meaning, we must protect them for everyone, without exception. He served on the board of directors for ACLU of Oregon from 2011 to 2017 and served with the Oregon Council on Civil Rights, which produced a seminal report on juvenile justice that led to the passage to SB 1008 2019. His currently a member of the Chief Justice’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee.
Monica Mueller is an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University and specializes in ethical and political philosophy. She published the book Contrary to Thoughtlessness: Rethinking Practical Wisdom and is interested in discussing the seemingly overwhelming problems of living together in a world with others.
- You can watch the full recording of our 2018 conversation with Bobbin Singh, david rogers, and Rene Denfeld on YouTube or listen on Soundcloud.
- Monica Mueller and david rogers both mention Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. Here's a PDF of the entire book.
- Monica Muella mentioned she was facilitator of a Conversation Project. The Conversation Project is an OH program that gets groups of people talking about challenging questions in communities all over the state. Oregonians suggest topics – like Housing and Belonging, or What We want from the Wild, or Understanding Rural/Urban Divides – and Oregon Humanities helps prepare facilitators to lead conversations in partnership with local libraries, schools, houses of worship or other gathering places. From Coos Bay to Enterprise, Cottage Grove to Klamath Falls, and Prineville to Portland, the Conversation Project helps Oregonians talk with and listen to each other. You can find learn about facilitating or attending a Conversation Project here.
Adam Davis: "It is not only our relationship to the world that is indirect, but also our relationship to ourselves. We arrive at our own being only via the detour of ideas about it. Knowing of our mortality, we must live as a human being with a self-image that is by no means self-evident, but is the tentative result of questioning and speculation." (Hans Jonas)
Welcome to The Detour, a show about people and ideas. I'm Adam Davis. When you hear the words "criminal justice system," what do you think about? As we head into today's show, I'd ask you to imagine someone you love being part of, or subject to, the criminal justice system as it exists today, either as an offender or a victim. Maybe you already know someone who is. Maybe you yourself are. What does that feel like? If you had the chance, how would you change the system to minimize harm to that person, however they enter in?
Today we revisit a conversation I had in 2018 with Rene Denfeld, Bobbin Singh, and david rogers about reimagining the criminal justice system and how it might treat our loved ones differently than it does.
Rene Denfeld is an author and former chief investigator at a public defender's office. Bobbin Singh is the executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center. David rogers is a program officer of gender, racial, and ethnic justice at the Ford Foundation.
A heads up that today's episode mentiones sexual and family violence.
I would like to say a big welcome to david rogers, Rene Denfeld, and Bobbin Singh. Thank you for joining us this evening.
We are going to be thinking forward into what we might imagine the criminal justice system could be, but I was hoping we could start by moving back first. And I wanted to ask each of you in a way to talk a bit about maybe when and how the idea of prison or jail—or whatever we call it—started to register for you, as young people.
If you can remember how it started to show up as a thing and make an impression on you. And I wonder, Bobbin, if anything pops into your mind there.
Bobbin Singh: Well, thank you for having us. It's an honor to share the stage with David and Rene. I feel kind of lucky to be in with those two—a little out of place, but extremely lucky to be here.
But I think for me, really, what happened is, my parents immigrated here from India in the late sixties. I was born and raised in a Sikh family, wore a turban, was born and raised in Atlanta and grew up in the South. And I experienced racism, bigotry, prejudice from as early as I can remember—being told to go back to our country, “you don't belong here,” being discriminated [against] in businesses, so on and so forth. And I joke that, being raised in Atlanta, the first names that you remember are—or that you learn—are like John Lewis, Andy Young, MLK, because the civil rights movement was there in Atlanta. The history is there.
So I really became sort of attracted to those figures, that movement, and really started to appreciate and understand how people stood up to racism and bigotry. And the thing that really stood out to me is that I don't think there's anything more perverse, horrifying, disgusting than when your government, whether it's the state or federal government, discriminates against you, oppresses you, subjects you to cruel and unusual punishment.
And I think once you start thinking about those issues in that way, and then you begin to look at the criminal justice system—prisons and jails, and how we treat people who are charged with and arrested for crimes, how it disproportionately impacts certain communities, and how the criminal legal system’s really used to sort of control populations or people that we don't want, how it is a manifestation of White supremacy and institutional racism—once you start looking at that and seeing that and being exposed to the criminal justice system and these issues, it's very hard, I think, for anyone to turn away from it. And so as I started growing up experiencing both discrimination from individual citizens, but [also] I've had many encounters with law enforcement, you know, after the Iraq war, it was racial profiling that occurred. After 9/11, more racial profiling. I was always randomly selected at the airport for searches. It's just that: how the government treats people that we don't like. And that's really what I think the criminal justice system is about, fundamentally.
Adam Davis: Rene, I don't know, as you think back, when prison started to register as an idea or a thing.
Rene Denfeld: I'll share some stuff I've written about as well. And I'm pretty open about my own past. My first experience with prisons and jails was when I was nine, and the man I consider my father was sentenced. He's a registered predatory sex offender, and I have a vivid memory of being in the courtroom and watching him get led away. And I think that later just led to this very heartfelt and passionate commitment and question I have of what is justice. You know, as a survivor and as a victim, but also as an advocate who came from an African American family and has experienced a lot of the discrimination and racism that's out here, you know. So I eventually got into death penalty work. I ended up working as a chief investigator for a while at the public defender's office.
And, you know, it's been profoundly redemptive work for me. Partially it's understanding—I want to understand why. You know, why do some people commit bad things? Why do we end up actually imprisoning the people who are less likely to be guilty? Because who ends up in prison and jail in our country actually has very little to do with their actions. I'm really fascinated with all the ways in which we are failing, actually, to create a justice system in our society that works. And I also take a great deal of pleasure in working not just with the victims, but actually I take a lot of pleasure in working with the offenders.
I would love to see us create a model of justice where there's a chance of redemption and change and prevention.
david rogers: You know one of my—
Adam Davis: Hey, sorry to interrupt. That's david rogers speaking. Back to the show.
david rogers: One of the early drivers for me, in terms of getting involved in working around criminal justice, was when I was in my late teens, a cousin of mine was beaten really, really badly by multiple police in front of his parents in his front yard. He is a gentle, gentle soul, one of the most gentle souls that I know, and he spent a week in the hospital. There was no justice there. And that was a real motivator for me to start organizing—at the time I was living in western Massachusetts—around police accountability.
The organization I was organizing with, we were focused on trying to create an independent police review board. We made very little progress actually in about a year and a half of hard work. And then we we realized we really actually have no idea what's going on, you know, in terms of most effective strategies. And so we started talking to people who are doing criminal justice reform around the country. And that's actually when my understanding of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex really grew. I started from police accountability and then my analysis grew much wider.
What happened to my cousin fundamentally sad to me, you know, this is a system that is supposed to keep us safe. I mean, the justice system, the institutions like police departments are somehow built on this narrative that their existence keeps us safe. And yet that was laid bare. That is not at all what's happening. Building safe and healthy communities has very little to do—in fact, nothing to do—with building and filling prisons. Right. Like we know, in fact, to a large degree our focus on incarceration makes us less safe, which maybe we can talk more about.
Adam Davis: Yeah, it’d be great to go further into that. In a way, pushing towards, well, what is this system for? And you just suggested some expectation that it's for keeping communities safe. And I guess I'd want to just put that question back explicitly, maybe for starters, even: What is the prison system for? The justice system for? If you were going to boil it down. And I know there's both an is and an ought to be, but maybe starting with the is.
Rene Denfeld: And what it really is in practice? You know, I think in my experience in Oregon, you know, I think right now we certainly have more prisons than we do colleges, universities.
We were talking earlier—right now, I think in the United States, one in four Americans now has a criminal record, and that makes it almost impossible to find housing or work. You know, I think what one thing that we need to examine is—when we're talking about what are prisons for—is there is an economy of oppression. Right now, prisons in the United States are a huge provider of prison slave labor. You know, they sew the uniforms at McDonald's. If you buy Victoria’s Secret—you don't have to tell me if you do, I don't need to know what you're wearing—they make those underwear. They put together phones, they farm. One in three wildland firefighters is an inmate. So, you know, there's a huge economic incentive for incarcerating.
And so I think that's one of the things that they're for. And to be really honest, I think they are also for a lot of covert and overt racism. We're committing genocide in this country. We're committing genocide against people of color, and this is the way we're getting rid of them.
david rogers: All of that, yeah. But that safety narrative has been built to essentially prop it up. Right? And so it's been built in this narrative that there are these monsters out there that people should be afraid of, that society needs to be protected from. And we've seen that narrative develop in multiple ways. It's advanced the policies that drive mass incarceration.
We saw that there was a pseudo social science in the early nineties that created the myth of the “superpredator,” right? The young Black and brown men who are going to come out of the cities and into the suburbs and rain havoc and rape and pillage. And that myth of the superpredator was actually what then drove the proliferation of mandatory minimum sentences, which is one of the largest drivers of mass incarceration. It drove the policies like we have in Oregon—Measure 11—that treat fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-olds automatically as adults in the criminal justice system as soon as they're charged. These notions of these monsters that the system needs to protect us from are well-developed myths that also are fundamentally about advancing racism as well.
Adam Davis: What are the other arguments for a prison system, and are any of them convincing?
Rene Denfeld: Do you want to jump in on that one?
Bobbin Singh: The arguments you really hear are based on public safety, incapacitation, deterrence—the idea that somehow, if people know they're going to be incarcerated, that will deter crimes—or mandatory minimums.
I mean, it's really about controlling and creating this idea that we're going to be safer by removing people from society, locking them away, disconnecting them, and then forgetting about them. I mean, that's really the hope. That's why prisons are built far away from urban centers. It's very hard to communicate with individuals once they're incarcerated. And then the legal remedies and options for individuals who are trying to move forward with challenging their convictions or whatever is also very daunting.
I think it really rests on this fundamental myth of public safety, and it only is able to happen because we actually know very little about our criminal justice system. We have very little real information about what's going on, about the people who are incarcerated, about the policies and practices of both law enforcement and prosecutor’s office. The way this has been able to explode over the past couple of decades is because we have failed to ask very deep questions.
And if there was, in my opinion, any other aspect or segment—part of our society—in which we had a system with the failure rate and lack of efficiency and the costs that are associated with incarceration, we would long ago have removed is and said, “This is not sustainable or functional. It makes no sense.”
david rogers: Hell yes.
There's another piece that I think helps drive the notion that the current system is what we need and we need more prisons and we need to be harsh with people. And you know, when you said that, hey, look, let's talk about folks who actually have committed crimes. It's not that harm isn't being done out there in the world.
So there's this notion of accountability that oftentimes is brought up and connected to well, "part of what the criminal justice system is doing is holding people accountable.” I actually think that accountability is a very important value. And not just because someone has broken a law, right?
If I am inappropriate and I've hurt someone's feelings, I should actually take some accountability for that. Right? Accountability is a good thing, but the way that it has been distorted—the notion of accountability—the way it's been distorted to advance the idea that we need more criminal justice, more jails, more prisons, harsher sentences, longer sentences. It's like, really, there's a difference between accountability and punishment. And the truth is that our criminal justice system is really about the punishment paradigm. It's not about accountability at all. But you have the people who are out there stumping for the policies of mass incarceration saying things like, “We need to hold people accountable."
What they're talking about is not accountability. Accountability is when people acknowledge the harm that they've done, they show some remorse, that they've taken some effort to repair the harm if that's possible, and do the hard work to transform their lives so that they don't create that harm again.
And to be clear, punishment is not all that. It's passive. The only thing that you need to do to accept punishment is not escape it. And our criminal justice system is fundamentally about punishment. It's not about accountability. It's almost the opposite of accountability, because incarceration doesn't force people to acknowledge the harm that they've created. It doesn't give people a shot at repairing the harm. And when you lock people in cages, to be clear, there is nothing to allow people to do the personal transformation, to rebuild their lives, to be better on the outside. So we talk about accountability, but that's not what's happening.
Rene Denfeld: Absolutely. I think one thing that I've I observed a lot is there's this kind of this virtue signaling that goes on. We think that in order to be against crime and against violence and for the victims that we cannot allow any recognition of the humanity of the offender, but we can. We can hold the incredible—and I've experienced that growing up the way I did—we can hold the trauma and the pain and the deep need for a hearing and listening and validation of the victim in one hand. And we can also hold the humanity of the offender in the other. These things are not contradictory, yet, in our culture, I think people of all political stripes have bought into this myth that in order to validate the victim, they have to dehumanize the offender and say that they are worthless and will never be fixed and never be okay. And I'm speaking as a survivor as well as somebody doing my work. It doesn't that doesn't actually help the victims.
It doesn't give us what we need. We need to feel that what happened to us mattered. And if what happened to us mattered, then our society will engage in prevention. And we'll engage in actually keeping it from happening again. Not just locking everybody up and taking them in to throw away the key.
And meanwhile, when we get into those conversations, who gets locked up? It's not Woody Allen. You know, it's not the privileged. It's not Brock Turner. It's not the privileged White guy who is actually out there still free to commit horrible offense after horrible offense. Those are not the people that are actually getting locked up.
What's happening now is not about accountability, and we also need to confront that it's really not about helping victims either. And I believe that if we create a victim-centered approach to justice, a restorative approach, where we ask to victims, "What do you need?" You know, it gives the offender a chance to change, that that would actually do more for people like me.
Bobbin Singh: David and I both reaching for the mike. You know, building on both what David and Rene said, I think David was talking about this language that we use of accountability and punishment. Rene is talking about this, divisive sort of a zero-sum game that's been created by proponents of mass incarceration. This is intentional, to create this confusion using these types of languages and this type of division.
I call it the trifecta thing that proponents do: One, they try to shame individuals who have committed crimes by defining them as their crime, rather than looking at the human, the complexity that brought them into the justice system. They oversimplify that individual.
Two: They take data—not good data, and just a sliver—and put it out of context and try to demonstrate, “Oh yeah, this is actually working.” I had a district attorney not too long ago telling me that mandatory minimums have actually helped with racial disparities in this state. And that's not what the data shows, but he was looking at just a portion of it and stating that. And then when you hear it, people believe it and get confused by it.
And the third thing that proponents will do is do this thing—what Rene is talking about—this idea of this zero-sum game, that in order to have real justice, it's about the victim, and you have to punish the defendant. You cannot look at the humanity of the defendant. You cannot treat that person with compassion or dignity or respect or think about rehabilitation or a restorative process, because the victim will suffer.
And when you combine those three things together, what you end up having is a confused community, a confused population, and people then sort of go with their emotions, and it's understandable.
And so I think now, with sort of like the proliferation of social media technology, being able to track information better, we're actually able to penetrate past that and have deeper discussions about criminal justice issues, criminal justice reform, and actually say, “No, you know, don't be confused, don't be sort of dazzled by this kind of rhetoric, but let's get to the heart of what's going on here.”
david rogers: It's been amazing to see how much ugly criminal justice policy has been advanced in the name of victims. And the truth of the matter is actually the system does very little for survivors of crime and survivors of violence.
There are very few options, there are very few choices, and there are very few people in the system asking crime survivors what it is they want. In this country, over half of the people who are victims of violence—so people who have experienced serious trauma, who have been assaulted, who have been raped, people who have spent serious time in the hospital—choose not to report their crime.
And to be clear, that means, essentially, that they're choosing nothing over everything that our system has to offer.
Adam Davis: I'm Adam Davis. And today we're speaking with Rene Denfeld, Bobbin Sing, and david rogers.
So I feel like there are two directions we're going. And one is that perpetrators of harm, who are sometimes called criminals, we're talking about how they're often victims of both specific individualized harm and larger social harm beforehand. And so one big question I guess I have is: what's the right intervention point into that cycle of harm done and then kicked out again.
Maybe we can start there. Does that question make sense? And I'm thinking, even when I think about your two novels, for example, I feel like, in a way, the toughest characters to develop empathy for, because of some of the things they've done, the more we get to know them, the more we realize that they've had awful things done to them, both specific things and larger social forces operating on them. You almost can't help but empathize, then, with the harm they're doing to others. Where is the right place to intervene and how much can we expect of a criminal justice system?
david rogers: We need to focus on something different. I mean, hurt people hurt people. But we're not investing in—there's not treatment on demand in Oregon, you know, we're not investing in mental health services that are accessible in a community-based way. We're not investing in addressing, in the ways that we need to, homelessness. In fact, we’re criminalizing mental illness and homelessness. And when you think about the fact that in the past twenty years, the department of corrections budget in this state is one of the fastest growing state agency budgets, you know, let's take a little less of that and invest it in the community-based programs that are actually going to help people be OK, have opportunities, be able to repair the harm. There are choices that we can be making that are honestly fairly straightforward, and we just need the political will to be able to make them.
Adam Davis: What are the fairly straightforward choices that will help us repair some of the harm that occur to you?
Bobbin Singh: I think there are some clear things that we can do. I don't know if they're simple. I think, first and foremost, we as a community, as a country, need to embrace complexity.
I think that is going to be the biggest challenge, is to be able to say, you know, that people are complex, and our justice system needs to reflect the fact that people are complex. And that does mean getting rid of simple solutions like mandatory minimums, the death penalty, and other types of, sort of, three strikes. These are all very simple-minded ways to approach our problems in our society.
I think the other thing, which is a huge challenge, is we have to connect the legacy of racism, slavery, White supremacy to our criminal justice system. We just have to accept it and acknowledge that it permeates everything in our system. And that is not something we've done yet.
david rogers: And so on complexity and racism, thinking about those two things, we need to acknowledge that there's also this kind of notion of the good victim and the bad victim that is highly racialized.
There's federal dollars out there that circle round to municipalities to provide victim assistance.There are people who don't have access to victim assistance. For example, one of the things that prevents people from getting access to victim assistance is if you have a prior felony record. So a sex worker can get brutally assaulted, and if they have a former felony conviction, are they going to get any victim assistance that might actually help them be safe, to put their life back on track? No.
Young men of color are ten-and-a-half times more likely to be robbed or assaulted than White women. But, you know, if you've ever taken one of those implicit bias tests where are you get the objects flashed on the screen and you have to do a split-second, Who is this person? Who’s the victim in this situation? But we don't think of young men of color as victims of crime. But in fact, it's communities of color who experience the highest levels of crime. And so they experience a double burden in the criminal justice system where they experience the highest levels of crime and violence and yet are brutalized by the very system that is meant to protect them because mass incarceration is ravaging communities of color.
There's also, I think, to this, a very individualistic human battle that we need to have for ourselves because violence happens. And it's a human, it's a natural human reaction to feel like someone should be punished. The way fear is actually also a very human emotion. And the policies of mass incarceration have definitely been sold on the politics of fear.
But I think that we need to challenge ourselves when we see ourselves responding in that way. In some ways it's about, do we have optimism for human evolution? Can we do better? And, if so, we individually need to actually push ourselves to tap the compassion rather than the fear and the support for the punishment paradigm when we actually see something terrible happen. And to know that no one should be judged for the worst thing that they've done or that the worst thing that they've had done for them, and to have faith that people can transform. If we're building a system that fundamentally doesn't believe that people can transform, then we've already lost.
Adam Davis: The complexity of this is one thing, the difficulty of holding these things together on one hand and intense skepticism about the size, scope, and duration of the justice system as it is. And at the same time, a hope that we might find it within ourselves to start turning this around.
And it sounds like there's some hope in technology, there's some hope in other things we might see, but it feels more than complex. It feels incredibly challenging to look through. In a way, the more we see the harder it can seem to come out the other side of it. I've heard moments of what sounds optimism or hope, and I want to ask for help seeing those.
david rogers: Right now, the activism that's happening in the country in Oregon around prosecutorial reform is huge. The most powerful people in the criminal justice system are prosecutors and district attorney offices. They define more than anyone—more than judges, more than police—what happens to someone in the criminal justice system. They have largely defined their success based on metrics like how many convictions they have, the length of sentences they convict people to. And to be clear, those are not the benchmarks for whether or not they're helping to build safe and healthy communities.
And so now, right now, there's a movement happening that says we need to redefine the role of prosecutors in our criminal justice system and totally change the benchmarks. And, by the way, most of them are elected. So we have power over them, and we're beginning to shine a light on and pay attention to them. And I think that's going to actually create some serious change.
Adam Davis: I guess I want to ask, like if you had to boil down the question, the question we ought to walk out of here thinking most about. And when I say we, I mean, we broadly, whatever our role is.
david rogers: You’re going meta!
Adam Davis: It’s a tried and true, maybe not always effective, but—
david rogers: I reject the premise of the question!
Adam Davis: What happens if I accept your rejection? But I really do want to ask the meta question to boil down and go, What's something you want us as we're going to sleep tonight to be thinking about, an open question that you want us thinking about.
Rene Denfeld: I can't really think of a question. I would say that, you know, I think that we all have the power to make immense change.
And one of the things that we do in our society, we devalue that. Women in particular, I think we're socialized to be afraid and told that we're helpless and that we need some other person like the criminal justice system to take care of us. And we're not that powerless. And I think we all have this capacity and ability to make a difference.
And a lot of times it's like, it's even the smaller things that we do, you know, checking in on the family down the street, volunteering, you know, trying to tackle these issues with integrity. So I think for me, it would just be that recognition of that power and the capacity that we all have. And it's something that we can all share in this journey. In every movement, the civil rights movement, for instance, there are the people that are the protestors, there's the people that are the lawyers, there's the people that are doing my kind of work, and then there's the people that are doing other kinds of work, and it all has value. We all can make a difference together.
david rogers: I think that, first of all, social change is oftentimes a slow process, and we can get lost in the path of incrementalism. If we're really going to reimagine justice, we need to resist pushing back on rejecting ideas that seem overly idealistic or impractical or seem too far away or maybe not viable at all. Sometimes it's healthy to let ourselves imagine. In the spirit of Angela Davis, who wrote this really powerful book called Are Prisons Obsolete, I would ask that we allow ourselves to imagine, what would our society look like, even if it's eighty years from now, what might it look like If we didn't have prisons and jails?
Adam Davis: Can you join me in saying a big thank you to david, Rene, and Bobbin.
Hey, Adam here. A lot has happened since that conversation with Rene, Bobbin, and david in 2018: state changes to death penalties, devastating COVID deaths and conditions in prisons, and a number of high visibility trials. We called Monica Mueller, a philosopher who happens to work in prisons, to help us understand more about all this.
Monica Mueller: My name is Monica Mueller, and I teach philosophy at Portland State. And I also volunteer/work for an organization that offers a wellness program in prisons and Oregon.
Adam Davis: And then also you used to lead a Conversation Project for Oregon Humanities called Crime and Punishment [in Oregon]. Maybe we could start by if you tell us a little bit about that: What were the kinds of questions you were asking, and what was your sense of who was showing up?
Monica Mueller: So the kinds of questions that I was asking during the Conversation Project were mostly around what we are aiming to accomplish with punishment. And so I started very narrowly with how we punish ourselves and others in our everyday life. And then kind of broaden the scope to the question of punishment socially. And that led into a conversation around prisons and the purpose for that.
The people that would attend varied based on where I was. Very often I found either people that were affiliated with criminal law or prisons directly in their lives or people that have friends or family that are affected by the carceral context. And then occasionally I would have people that were just interested in having the conversation. It turned out that those conversations, because, I think, I started with the personal and then moved to the social and political. It was a different way in.
Adam Davis: When you say you started with the personal in thinking about punishment, can you give me an example of what you mean?
Monica Mueller: Well, to talk about punishment, personally, the first move for me is to think about the ways in which I punish myself. And so very often I punish myself in my thought and thinking. But I also will, you know, try and curb behavior by having an explicit kind of reflective conversation with myself regarding some behavior that I think is problematic.
Adam Davis: And so it's the move from problematic behavior personally to problematic behavior in the community that moves us toward the carceral system.
Monica Mueller: What was interesting about that is that participants were often quite familiar with punishing themselves in various ways, particularly in our thinking, the ways that we talk our talk to ourselves as a form of punishment. I like to joke about it like I have a general in my head that very often is trying to get me to like conform to some standard that I'm not meeting.
When I moved to the question of how do you punish your partner or your friends, very often people were very reluctant to even admit that they would do that.
And so it becomes this kind of interesting question of why we're so accustomed to punishing ourselves and whether or not we punish others. Certainly the social stigma around the idea that we would do that led individuals to be kind of silenced. And so I'd have to cultivate a conversation, like, come on, you know there are certain ways that if something doesn't go well you'll level judgment and then respond, right?
Adam Davis: So I’ll do the dishes, but I won't look over and make eye contact, that kind of thing.
Monica Mueller: Sure, sure.
Adam Davis: I say that as if I have done a thing like that, but I wouldn't.
Monica Mueller: Of course you haven't.
Adam Davis: No. Um, and then what about the move to people we don't know, but we live in community with? What's your sense of how people who came to these conversations think about that?
Monica Mueller: Well, I think a lot of it does pertain to a notion that we need to respond to harm done in a way that is explicit, as a way of both deterring that kind of behavior in the future but also as a way of responding to the victim’s needs in the moment.
And so I think that that move, when we move from the personal to the political or the social where we're dealing with strangers, is one of suggesting that we owe something to those who have been harmed. And in order to give at least a symbolic display of recognition, punishment seems to be warranted.
Adam Davis: So if I do something wrong and harm someone by my doing something wrong, punishment would be for, on one hand, if I'm punished, it's going to teach me and other people, “Don't do that again. You'll be punished.” And it's going to symbolize to he person I've done wrong to, “Look, we're making this right.” Do I have those two pieces?
Monica Mueller: I think in the conversations, that is the way that it would go. And then that would lead to a conversation about two of the functions that prisons and punishment are based on. Two of the reasons or arguments that are given are deterrence and retribution. And then in terms of the person who has done the harm, it's the idea of rehabilitation. Those three arguments seem to be the philosophical arguments that are given for justification of punishment on a mass scale.
Adam Davis: So it feels to me like we've just focused, just a little bit, just starting to focus on the person who has either committed the crime or been convicted of committing the crime. And earlier we talked about the importance of something for the victim of the crime, what's done for that person. And then there's this third, the other people, neither the person perpetrating the crime nor the victim of the crime, but the rest of us, all potential victims and potential criminals, I guess.
Do you have a sense thinking about those three parties, about how the prison approach works or doesn't work for each of the three? I realize that's a big question, but if we took each of those three groups, what is the putting people in cages supposed to do for each of those groups?
Monica Mueller: To start with the victim, I think removing the person who is causing harm and putting them behind bars serves the function of making the person no longer a threat. In terms of whether or not that does anything in addition to help the victim, that's another question. And I think restorative justice is really interested in that part.
In terms of the person who has committed the crime, the idea of putting them in cages is, one, to remove their right to liberty. So it is punitive in the sense of having a consequence for their crime or the harm that's done. I think in theory, part of the idea of putting people in prison is to help rehabilitate them. And I stress in theory because I'm not entirely convinced that we do that part well.
I think part of the justification for why prisons exist on behalf of the criminal is that it will give them the opportunity to rehabilitate and, in some stretch, even become accountable for their crime.
In terms of the greater society, part of the justification is that it will deter others from doing similar crimes, and also it will remove the offender from society and therefore prevent further harm from that particular offender. So it serves a security measure.
All of that, I think makes sense theoretically, yet in practice I think that it has the opposite effect for each member of the trinity that we're talking about. I think that's part of the reason why the question of what is the purpose of prisons is a live question.
Adam Davis: We're responding to a conversation that david rogers and Bobbin Singh and Rene Denfield had, that was very focused, I would say, on reform of the system. And so I want to ask you in doing this work, do you think about how going in to be with small groups of inmates, how does that sort of direct engagement relate in your mind to working on systemic reform?
Monica Mueller: I was very inspired by that conversation that you had. And I think that there is a lot of work that we can do to address systemic reform. My way of participating in reform is by helping inmates understand themselves so that they can navigate life better. And that doesn't, on the face of it, address the system, except that the way that our system is set up—in Oregon, sixty percent of criminals that have been released re-offend within three years. So our recidivism rate in Oregon is sixty percent, and elsewhere in the United States it's even higher. As a system for correction that is not very efficient or effective.
If I can help even just one person figure out how they can navigate their life with greater ease and how they need not respond to every thought storm or every reality that feels like crisis in a way that will put them back in prison, then I'm at least interrupting the recidivism. At the very least that is addressing one piece of the larger problem of the system of prisons.
Adam Davis: When you think about transforming lives, can I ask you, do you feel like your experience of doing this work in prisons has transformed you in any way? And if so, how would you describe that?
Monica Mueller: Participating in work in prisons has transformed me in really significant ways, but probably the most direct way is making me conscious of the extraordinary suffering humans are experiencing and giving me pause before leveling my own judgment against what anyone has done.
Adam Davis: So I want to go back to, I don't know if we've used this word much, but I guess I want to ask a little bit about it and then, then maybe we'll move toward a close. and it's the word harm. And I guess I want to ask, based on this work, based on your experience moving through the world, do you have a sense of what harm should be met with when it's harm that one person does to another?
Monica Mueller: When I think about harm and harm that is perpetrated from one person to another, do I have a sense of what is kind of warranted or what response is required? And the first thing that comes up for me is compassion. And that's not because, as my brother will say, I'm a bleeding heart liberal, which isn't even an accurate label. It's not even because I'm a bleeding heart, it's because when I'm suffering, I need support. And I act in the worst ways for myself when I'm suffering. And so to respond to suffering with anything but compassionate support is not only counterproductive, but I think it's narrow-sighted.
That's not to say that I think we need to just support criminals and really not be concerned about victims. And in a certain sense, I actually think that that's kind of what we're doing. We spend $42,000 a year on each inmate in Oregon, and we spend twelve-and-a-half thousand dollars for each student in the public education system each year.
And so in a strange way, we are offering a kind of support and not really doing much else. I think that we can address victims and their pain and the harm that's done to them in a far more compassionate way than simply removing the offender. And we can address the offender in a far more compassionate way than just putting them in a very expensive facility and keeping them away from society.
Adam Davis: What's your sense of the positive good that punishment does, if any?
Monica Mueller: Punishment certainly identifies that harm has occurred. It definitely articulates and, in some symbolic sense, confirms that we cannot accept this kind of behavior within the social contract. And so it does have that positive function, but I'm not even convinced that punishment is the best way for us to serve that function of identifying harm and making explicit that that kind of behavior is incompatible with the social contract.
Adam Davis: Do you feel like, as you think about this work or prisons more generally, do you have in your head a question that doesn't go away?
Monica Mueller: I am reminded of Angela Davis's question in her work Are Prisons Obsolete?, and she basically says, the fundamental question is why do we take prisons for granted? She moves on to say it's as if it's a fact of life like birth and death.
I think that's a great question. Why do we take them for granted? It is a human-constructed institution. While it may have made sense in 1699, when John Locke was writing the Second Treatise of Government, I don't think it makes sense for humanity where it is now.
Adam Davis: In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis asks, “Are prisons racist institutions? Is racism so deeply entrenched in the institution of the prison that it is not possible to eliminate one without eliminating the other? Why do we take prisons for granted?” I’d be curious to know what you think.
The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Our producer is Keiren Bond. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Karina Briski.
You can find a link to the full conversation with Rene, Bobbin, and david, and all of our guests’ work, in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org, where you'll also find suggested readings related to today's show picked by Oregon Humanities staff. You can support the show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts, or by sharing it with a friend. We'd be really grateful.