Interviews

My Conversation With a Prosecutor on Prison Art

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I recently shared on Facebook an article called Prisoners Make Therapeutic Art Monuments Addressing The Death Penalty that I do find particularly interesting.

A deputy prosecutor I know commented in response to share his point of view about why he doesn’t think we should care about art made by inmates. A conversation ensued between him and me that I thought I’d share because it raises different questions that are all angles of the same problem. I think it’s also a good example of a respectful exchange about a complicated topic that people often aggressively debate on.

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Gavriel Jacobs: Akil Jahi AKA Preston Carter, the “creator of the proposed shoe sculpture.” On January 25, 1995, Carter went to a house he believed belonged to a drug dealer he intended to rob. He and his accomplice went to the wrong house on accident, instead going to the home of an innocent family who had nothing to do with drugs. He realized this when he knocked on the door, but decided to rob the family anyway. They kicked in the door and forced their way into the house where Thomas and Tensia Jackson lived with their small daughter. While Carter ransacked the apartment for money and jewelry, his accomplice raped Tensia Jackson. Thomas Jackson hid in his daughter’s closet. Carter found him in the closet and shot him at point-blank range with a shotgun, literally blowing his brains all over his daughter’s room. When his accomplice finished raping Mrs. Jackson, Carter shot her in the face with the shotgun as she kneeled begging for her life. The small child was not injured, but was found lying in a pool of her father’s blood and tissue.


Who cares about their art.


Louise Massol: Gavriel, first know that I respect your opinion and that I agree that this crime, like any other, is horrible and something that should simply never happen.

Now here’s why I think we should care about inmates art and why it doesn’t make crime less revolting or make us care less about victims of violent crimes:

First of all, it has been proven that prison and death penalty are not effective deterrents to crime and inmates are clearly the less equipped members of our society to face this environment.

If we decide to apply the convenient eye for an eye logic, nothing will ever change.

Thinking that crime comes from evil minds and not from sick or hurt ones is holding us back from becoming a less violent society precisely because we punish and don’t heal.

It also shows that we don’t believe people can change, that we think some people are more valuable than others, that revenge and pain in response to pain is something we believe in and are defined by.


We need to act as the peaceful society we want to become. The UK has a very low crime rate for a reason. They care, they help, they don’t glorify violence, they make sure people have the resources to make good decisions, to have other options than violence. They started the dialogue we don’t even want to have.

Caring about inmate art forces us to dive into the possibly uncomfortable reality that these people are products of our society and that their voice counts, simply because they are human beings and have, no matter what they did, an inalienable right to dignity.

As long as murderers will be considered as monsters and that our reaction will be based on pain and revenge and a sense of justice that turns a blind eye to their personal circumstances, we won’t evolve, and most importantly, we won’t do anything to detect pain and help potential murderers before they act in destructive ways. I believe it is our responsibility as a society to listen more to the people who are causing harm because they so clearly need help. People don’t kill by genuine pleasure, nobody gains happiness from violence.

And yes, we can have compassion for both victims and murderers. This isn’t about taking sides, it’s about trying, as much as we can, to face the core of the problem, to believe in humanity, to not give up on anyone, to accept that we have no idea what it’s like to be someone else, to take into account all the factors that lead to crime, to be there for the victims and for the families of inmates, and for inmates themselves.

We do, more than ever, have to care.

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G.J.: I know we disagree about the death penalty, but that’s not really what this is about. My support for capital punishment is not without unease, and I am perfectly aware of the arguments against it. It is reasonable to believe that the State should not have a civil process by which it can take a life. I suppose my indignation arises from the attention feted on cold-blooded murders – we have millions of displaced, tortured, and impoverished people across several continents, yet a man who looked a bloodied rape victim, laughed at her desperate pleas, and then shot her in the face, is deserving of our individual attention. Compassion, like anything else, is not without limit. Mental exertions are zero sum as much as physical ones. We can have a certain amount of compassion for crime victims and their assailants – but yet you are only celebrating the artistic achievements of one of those groups with your energies. 

Whether prison or the death penalty are effective or not depends somewhat on the goals of the criminal justice system. Deterrence is only one such possible goal. Obviously, if the goal is retributive, they work well. If the goal is rehabilitation, prisons can be effective with the proper programming which, admittedly, very few American institutions now provide in the current economic climate. If the purpose is isolationist than they are highly effective. The difference in crime rates between the US and UK is debatable, as there is very little clear data that can be directly compared. The UK crime rate is still significant –2,600 cases of robbery per 100,000 citizens. In any event, the US crime rate has inarguably been declining for decades.

Whether someone is “evil” or merely “sick” is a theological question. Whether it matters is a practical one.

Attending to their personal circumstances implies that this mitigates their actions and absolves them of at least some personal responsibility. I do not accept that it does.

I am sure that they are sick, and this necessitates their quarantine. They certainly have a right to basic human dignity. They are fed, they are clothed, and they receive appropriate medical care as they masturbate their lives away in their cells.

I think any connection between looking at Carter’s shoe sculpture and preventing murder is dubious. Crime rates are more strongly connected to economics and government policy than appreciation of the arts and crafts of the condemned. I cannot see any quantifiable way in which viewing the art assists in helping or identifying potential murderers still in the community, or how you even discern with any type of specificity who these people are. To the extent that they can be distinguished, helping people out of poverty will assist them more than the elite establishments indulgence of men who will die in prison, one way or another. Perhaps art generally softens ossified hearts, but the people who are gentle enough to care about inmate art are rarely the same demographic that rapes and murders. You cannot care about criminal justice and not be searching for the most effective way to influence entry into the system. I know of no evidence that this project is anything more profound than the mundane reflections of men whose only distinction is their terrible depravity. If people choose to focus on their purported remorse that is their prerogative, but I see nothing to celebrate

You are wrong that nobody takes pleasure in violence or killing. You simply haven’t seen enough men kill and be killed, or at least not in close enough proximity, to observe the phenomenon.

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L.M.: Starting a conversation on that wasn’t my intention as I know it would remain somewhat sterile only because of our fundamental difference of opinion, how anchored it is and where it comes from. The only thing I want to clarify is that I’m not talking about their “artistic achievements”, which sounds like something futile, like finding some talent and using it as a proof of their value as human beings. The art in question is interesting merely because it’s an expression of something these individuals are experiencing and we can’t just refuse to pay attention to it by fear that it might shed some undeserving light on them, substract some responsibility points or waste our energy better used for victims. It’s all part of the same effort to develop a greater understanding (which doesn’t mean acceptance) of humans around us and of what, at some point, drives them over the edge.


Also, I shouldn’t have used the word “pleasure”, I was really talking about happiness. These people aren’t happy. Circumstances are not excuses and we have everything to gain in digging deeper and paying attention to what happens before crimes. I’m the penfriend of a guy on death row and yes, it’s only one subjective experience, but seeing his evolution, the human qualities that he develops and the way he sees things makes me believe there’s something big we’re missing, because the justice system doesn’t seem to me to be about human understanding, which makes it go against its own purpose. 

If its point is to help create a just society, it then seems counterintuitive to ignore opportunities to learn about what makes one act unjustly toward others, information on which actual solutions can be based.

Here’s food, if not for debate, but for thoughts: http://www.ted.com/…/david_r_dow_lessons_from_death_row…

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G.J.: I believe there are solutions that can help reduce mass incarceration. Tending to impoverishment, the availability of narcotics and mental health diversionary programs, decriminalization of some types of drug offenses, and increased juvenile intervention are examples. You write quite eloquently, beautifully actually, about happiness and understanding, but they are subjective and have no meaningful quantification or real-world policy analogues. Apart from the criminally insane, criminal motivations are not obscure – most arise from the same rules of scarcity that govern all of human society. Much of the rest falls into crimes of anger, jealousy, control, and passion – aspects of human personality that are not difficult to understand, but difficult to control ex-ante by the State in a free society.

I guess we disagree not merely about capital punishment (which is really just a symbolic formality compared to life without parole), but the fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system. The point is to create a “just society,” but I see a system that places parallel emphasis on the experience of the assailant and the suffering of the victim as unjust. And as a practitioner, there are resource limits that cannot be ignored.

Capital of all kinds that goes towards defendants, whether to better understand them, to treat them, or any number of worthy goals, are indeed resources that cannot go to victims or other priorities.

Ideally prison does something to make inmates less likely to re-offend. But it is also punishment, and to the extent you believe punishment is a goal unfit for a just society, the difference between us is probably irreconcilable.

An interesting discussion that, as you suggest, has quickly run its course as we begin to chase our tails. Thank you for the movie suggestion – I’ll check it out when I have time this weekend.

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L.M.: Gavriel, I just want to say thank you for debating with intelligence and respect. It’s rare when people agree to disagree in a non-aggressive way. And your point of view is interesting, whether I agree with it or not.

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Do you think we should care about inmates’ art? Let me know in the comments.

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