Reading in preparation for a lecture on Buddhist writings, I came across this quote:
What is the noblest way of life? My unhesitating answer to that question is: a life dedicated to truth and justice.
Only in a world where truth and justice flourish can people freely bring forth their innate goodness. If, in contrast, philosophies or belief systems that deny the possibility of infinite human improvement prevail, misery and suffering will abound.
~Daisaku Ikeda, Lecture on Nichiren’s Letter from Teradomari
This resonated today. As some of you know, I’m becoming an activist and advocate for modern abolition – the end of mass incarceration. These days I’m mulling a series of essays. I want to help us imagine a world in which imprisonment is no longer the strategy of first resort. My premise begins with the innate potential, dare I say, the innate goodness, present in all people, and the options we can design when this potential, or goodness, is foregrounded rather than summarily discounted.
I’m thinking about our continued reliance on the mantra of personal responsibility in the face of structural inequities; the fallibility of lawmakers; the dynamic way we criminalize behaviors; the hierarchy of crime.
And if we study the fallout from mass incarceration on the incarcerated, on their families, and on society at large, I believe we’ll find we’re not “better off” with a swelling population of bodies in cages. There are too many minds in cages already, and we certainly aren’t any better off for that.
This quote encourages me because speaking up against mass incarceration is a matter of justice. In 2010, 1 out of every 137 people was behind bars. (How many friends have you on social media?) Now, over 2.3 million people are jailed and imprisoned, and the number continues to grow. Mandatory sentencing guidelines cage people for decades with no consideration of their individual circumstances. While inside, prisoners are routinely denied reading materials that could be a pathway to growth and transformation. Where is the justice in that?
Corporations profit from an increasing prison population. Who might be criminalized next to feed the bottom line? And once you’re freed, good luck. In many places, ex felons are summarily barred from reentry into society. No money. No housing. No opportunity for work. No voice.
Each of these things is but a strand in the knotty mess that is mass incarceration. This mess strangles the very possibility of individual human improvement, and by extension, societal improvement as well. Our disposal and disregard of people we view as “other” or “less than” does not move us forward. Fighting on behalf of justice? Maybe that does.