FREE THEM ALL! A Story by Roger Cuthbertson

Here is THE story of how I rather rashly came to have the rear window of my car adorned with a neatly printed message “FREE THEM ALL.”   

Roger Cuthbertson holding a sign outside the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee, MN

By Roger Cuthbertson  Original to Rise Up Times  August 13, 2020  

Here is the story. Read below for an informative article about freeing them all.

I heard there was going to be a gathering on April 25th in Maple Grove MN advocating for the thinning out of Minnesota’s prison populations because of the COVID19 pandemic. I got there early so that I could determine if this was something I wanted to be a part of.  I parked next to a woman who was using liquid chalk to print a message on her car window. While she worked, she told me about her son. She said that he had had mental health issues even as a young child.  He got into trouble with the law when he was only 19, and received a sentence of ten months jail time plus ten years of probation.

Even though he never committed another crime, he spent nearly all of the next twenty-three years of life in jail, because he couldn’t meet some of the rigorous demands of probation. One violation of probation was use of marijuana.  Another violation was going online with a computer.  With his mental instability, he couldn’t break the cycle. He was still in jail.  It seemed like he needed help, not endless imprisonment.

The woman finished decorating her car with the message, “FREE THEM ALL,” and asked if I wanted a message on my car.  I said, “Sure.”  She said, “Let me do it.  I can make nice neat lettering.”  Being completely disarmed by her sad story, and knowing that the message would probably be similar to the message on her car window, I said, “great.”

Whereas I normally think about a protest message ahead of time, on this occasion I went to a protest with a message that I didn’t understand very well that was made by somebody else. It took me a long time to really wrap my head around the idea, FREE THEM ALL. A lot of people don’t agree with literally freeing them all. I am ok with that. The message is often a good conversation starter.

My car with the FREE THEM ALL! message on it has been to various prisons, including the state prison at Stillwater, the Lino Lakes prison, Shakopee Correctional Facility for Women, the Minnesota Corrections Facility at Faribault, and the Sherburne County Jail, where hundreds of ICE detainees are held.  The message has also been taken to the Governor’s mansion, the home of State Senator, Warren Limmer, the Minnesota Department of Corrections office in St Paul, to the home of the Department of Corrections Commissioner, Paul Schnell, and to the regional headquarters of ICE at Fort Snelling, where courts determine the outcomes of ICE cases.

FREE THEM ALL has been a powerful and common rallying cry, not just coming from me, but from many others as well.

FREE THEM ALL! Yes, free all of the people locked up in jails and prisons in the U.S.

By Roger Cuthbertson  Original to Rise Up Times  August 13, 2020  

As a country the USA has more people in prisons and a higher percentage of people in prisons than any other country of the world. With only 4.4 percent of the world’s population the USA has 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. I see no reason to believe that Americans are intrinsically more criminal than other people.  Rather, I would argue that at least 80 percent of our prisoners shouldn’t be there in the first place. There is something wrong with our justice system, not with our people.  There are somethings wrong with our definition of crime.  There is something wrong about our approach to creating a civil society. So, identify this 80percent and release them.  This would be the release of 1,840,000 incarcerated people.

There is an urgent need to release prisoners, right now, due to the corona virus, which has proven to be running rampant in some prisons, where people are locked up, inside, without opportunities for social distancing, without proper sanitization opportunities, and without adequate medical care.  It is an outrageous injustice to let prison time become a death penalty in the infectious petri dish of a prison.  If it seems too dangerous to summarily discharge all prisoners, at least some of them could be freed, say those in poor health, those close to the end of their sentences, and those who are least likely to be a danger to the outside community.

Correctional Facility – Faribault, MN, where, according to the Minnesota Department  of Corrections, there have been over 200 cases of COVID-19 among the prisoners, and two deaths, as of August 5, 2020.

For the rest, there needs to be a complete change to bring about safety from COVID-19 in their situation. It would make sense to do this sooner rather than later, not just for the lives of the detainees, but for the safety of the guards, and for the safety of the larger community. The virus will flourish in a prison environment, but it won’t stay there, as long as there are people going in and out of the prisons as with shifts of guards, and so forth.

As to ‘freeing them all’ from the larger prison system and beyond the context of the corona virus pandemic, I would like to begin by suggesting that the system we have is so dysfunctional that it does more harm than good, overall, and that it is wishful thinking to think that the system is worthwhile.  Here is the late historian, Howard Zinn, speaking to the issue in his book, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train (1):

“I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed—which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

“It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”

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It can be argued that eliminating jails and prisons in America even without providing some alternative system would be an improvement from what we have now.  This is Arthur Waskow, from the Institute of Policy Studies, on the subject, according to Angela Davis, in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2)

“Forget about reform; it’s time to talk about abolishing jails and prisons in American society….Still—abolition; Where do you put the prisoners? The ‘criminals’? What’s the alternative?  First, having no alternative at all would create less crime than the present criminal training centers do.  Second, the only full alternative is building the kind of society that does not need prisons; A decent redistribution of wealth and power and income so as to put out the hidden fire of burning envy that now flames up in crimes of property—both burglary by the poor and embezzlement by the affluent.  And a decent sense of community that can support, reintegrate and truly rehabilitate those who suddenly become filled with fury or despair, and that can face them not as objects—‘criminals’—but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.”

I would recommend freeing them all by first releasing the detainees who would likely be the least risk to the larger community and the ones who have been most egregiously wronged by the system, and then work systematically towards the more challenging cases. Free all those whose only crime was to desperately persist in crossing a border to seek a better life.  Free all those who are in jail for misdemeanor offenses, because they can’t afford bail.  Free those who are incarcerated for parole violations, if their time served is equal to or greater than their original sentence.

Free the prisoners at Guantanamo, who have been tortured and detained without due process for something going on twenty years. Free the elderly detainees who have served long terms, and who are not at all the same persons who were locked up. Free whistleblowers and political prisoners. Sex work should be decriminalized and those imprisoned for this work should be released. Free all those jailed for abuse of drugs and give them medical and therapeutic help instead of incarceration. Free all of those who wouldn’t be locked up if it weren’t for discriminatory procedures such as racial profiling. If the system violates the fundamental rights of the accused or the incarcerated, the victim gets a get-out-of-jail card free, no matter what. There will be many other kinds of prisoners that could be released right now, if we take the time to look.

Lucia Wilkes Smith, holding a NO ICE sign in front of the regional headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bishop Henry Whipple Building in Bloomington, MN. This is where courts determine the fate of ICE detainees.

I am arguing for the freeing of all prisoners, but not necessarily all at once. Looking farther down the line, dramatic changes need to be put in place so that people can do well after being released from prison.  A fundamental change that is needed is to eliminate the root causes of crime.  Again drawing heavily from Howard Zinn, some of these root causes of crime are poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed, lack of opportunity. Of course, this will take time and money and commitment. The rules of parole tend to be too harsh, especially if you are poor. There are people who have spent more time locked up for parole violations than time spent for the original sentence.

There needs to be education and help to reduce instances of domestic abuse and retribution.  In the meantime, the system should go easier on people who fight back against their oppressors. The stigmas making life difficult for ex-cons are difficult enough without the rules in many jurisdictions forbidding ex-cons from voting, getting food stamps or other charitable help, or from being eligible for low income housing, and that sort of thing. People with mental health issues should be given the kind of medical help that affluent people have access to instead of being locked up. Housing, medical care, and income should be guaranteed for all.

We need to take a second look at our culture of harsh retribution. Retribution does little to help the victims of crime. Retribution meets violent acts with state sponsored violence that tends to fuel violent crime rather than to subdue it. Restorative justice is a better idea for many cases.  Somehow, our society has come to the point where the general public tends to think you can never get too tough in punishing criminals. We have had a war on crime and a war on drugs (waged discriminately on racial minorities and the poor) that has not reduced either crime or drug use. The sentences have gone up and up and up, with no attendant crime reduction.

We have had things like harsh mandatory minimum sentences without the possibility of parole, three strikes and you are out, and so forth. We tried things like indeterminate sentencing to make reform of the prisoner the ticket to release, but in practice almost no one was released, resulting in extremely long sentences.

We have politicians who continually cry for getting tougher on criminals. It doesn’t take an entire lifetime in prison to learn that a bad mistake is not OK.  In some places, you can get extra time on your sentence if you are associated in some way with a gang or a so-called terrorist group. Sentencing should be on the basis of a criminal act, not an association. There are too many people jailed for conspiracy. Many of these are entrapped by informants who talk the person into agreeing to criminal activity, secretly tape the interaction, and then contact the authorities. Often these informants are paid or do this as a way of reducing their own criminal sentences.

Sherburne County Jail, which has a contract with ICE to hold a large number of prisoners from five states (MN, IA, ND, SD,  and NB) in addition to the prisoners from the local jurisdiction.  

There is a lot to be said for restorative justice  replacing punishment. Some people might be surprised to learn that reconciliation and reparation can be an alternative to long prison sentences in even violent crimes such as murder. Angela Davis discusses the case of Amy Biehl in Are Prisons obsolete? (3), a case where a white woman from the U.S. was killed in South Africa in 1993 during mob violence in the volatile  period leading up to the end of apartheid rule. To make a long story short, the parents of Amy, decided to actively cooperate with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to obtain the early release of the four men who had been convicted of Amy’s murder. Apologies were made. Sincere commitments were made to make amends. Friendships were made.

Linda and Peter Biehl established the Amy Biehl Foundation, to help provide educational opportunities for South African youth.  Two of the four who were responsible for Amy’s death dedicated part of their working lives to the Guguletu branch of the foundation. It would seem that the best was made of a tragic event by replacing revenge and punishment with a loving determination to work for a better world by all parties to the conflict.

Form a society that is more egalitarian, and you have a society with less need of incarceration.

Getting back to the more general thoughts about freeing them all, something has to be said about how the racist class system is a crime that creates crime. The people who make the rules almost always make rules that are in their own favor. The people that get caught breaking the rules are not usually the ones that make the rules. In present day America, where the gap between rich and poor is obscene, and where there is great brutality of police in enforcing laws that seem oppressively unfair to the people at the bottom of the heap, it is not surprising to see a disrespect for the law. The rioting, looting, and arson in Minneapolis following the killing by police of George Floyd would be an extreme example of this type of crime, that is something more like revolution than ordinary crime. Form a society that is more egalitarian, and you have a society with less need of incarceration.

Jo Schubert, holding a sign outside the Correctional Facility – Shakopee, a prison for women.

Another thing that causes incarceration is the profitability of incarceration. With the deindustrialization of America beginning the second half of the 20th century due to mechanization, offshoring of industries and other causes, labor took a big hit. Unemployment and underemployment became more common. In this setting labor tends to be looked at as being expendable.  Prisons for the expendable have become an attractive economy to bring jobs and wealth to many small towns across the U.S.

An appallingly immoral innovation was that some of the new prisons built were for-profit, corporate-owned prisons. Inside some of the prisons, public and private, prisoners can be found working for virtual slave wages for the state or for corporations. The war on crime and the war on drugs and other racist practices have kept the prisons full and the money coming in. Police have expanded their operations. Lobbyists for the prison-industrial complex are busy in Congress and at the state level. One way to reduce incarceration is to eliminate the profitability of the prison system.

Another argument for eliminating prisons is that a lot of crime happens in prisons. Behind the prison walls there are unspeakable crimes like beatings and rape and assault that don’t go on as much on the outside. We should be concerned for inmates who are victims of crimes, because inmates are people, too. Free the prisoners, and of course there would be zero crime in the empty prisons. You might or might not have more crime on the outside. If you got more crime on the outside, without prisons, this has to be balanced by the fact of zero prison crime.

Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater, MN

By now, the reader, if he or she is still there. is probably screaming the question “But what about the really dangerous prisoners—the psychopaths, the serial rapists, the mass killers and so forth.”  In the first paragraph it was pointed out that it should be comparatively easy to reduce the prison population by 80 percent because the U.S. has five times as many people locked up compared to the rest of the world’s countries. Think of all the money that would be saved by releasing the first 80 percent. The average cost of keeping a person in prison in the U.S. for a year is $31,000 according to The Vera Institute, as of May 19, 2017. If the prison population was reduced by the least dangerous 80 percent, there would be $124,000 available for each and every one of the remaining prisoners, every year.

With that amount of money available for round-the-clock monitoring and supervision and for nurturance outside a prison setting where root causes of crime have been addressed, maybe prisons could be done away with entirely. There might be some mistakes and some tragic crimes, just as there are many of these happenings in the present system. This has to be put in perspective.  Gone would be the injustices of the present prison system. Gone would be the slavery that exists in prison despite the 13th amendment.  Gone would be the excessive bail, solitary confinement and other cruel and unusual punishments that are common in our prison systems despite the 8th amendment. Think of the people who are totally innocent or who are deserving of a break because of extenuating circumstances. Isn’t it better to let a guilty person go free than to lock up an innocent person? In the United States, there is clearly more punishment than crime.

One important thing for us to do as a society is to study how other countries manage to have much smaller prison populations than we do. We need help.  See how they do it in Norway and other places.

Free them all!  Start with some, now. Be determined to free the rest as soon possible. Keep working for a society that doesn’t need prisons.

(1) Zinn, Howard. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: a Personal History. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002 (Paperback), p. 150.

(2) Davis, Angela. Are Prison’s Obsolete? An Open Media Book, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010, p. 105.

(3) Ibid, pp. 114-115.

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