The first time I stepped foot on Rikers Island, New York’s main jail complex, was in 2012 for a college course. I was struck by the long bridge, big fences, high walls, and sharp barbed wire. The old, run-down buildings, and loud metal doors made me feel unsettled. I would soon learn that the poor conditions of Rikers reflected the larger issue of mass incarceration in America. With a prison and jail population of 2.3. million, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration and is known for its harsh sentences, punitive policies, and subpar facilities. Fast forward five years, as I continued to work within the criminal justice system and return to Rikers each week as a teacher for adult women and young men, I found that in order to be present at work each day, I subconsciously began to normalize my surroundings and become desensitized to the high walls and bleak environment.
I came to Ireland to gain an international perspective on criminal justice reforms. I expected to learn about policies, procedures, and rehabilitation. However, over the past four months, a much more impactful shift has also started to take place. My experiences working with Irish professionals and visiting jails and prisons are beginning to demonstrate just how much I normalized certain aspects of the American justice system.
This past semester, my juvenile justice class took a trip to Ireland’s new (and only) youth detention facility, Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Unlike the U.S., which detains some juveniles in adult prisons, in Ireland, all detained juveniles are placed in a facility specifically designed for them. Upon reflection, a classmate shared that she felt naive, but was struck by how high the walls were, given that it was designed for children. In that moment, I realized that I had not even taken a real notice to the walls. Our professor sincerely responded that she was not naive to notice this, and we should never stop being shocked by the harsh nature and features of systems designed to incarcerate, punish, and strip individuals of their rights.
During another visit to Cork’s prison, someone made a comment about how the new floor tiles were too “institutional.” Inappropriately, my first thought was “if only you saw the floors in American jails…” Between these two moments, I realized that working so closely within the conditions of America’s failing justice system had blinded me from noticing all aspects of confinement that display disregard to the individuals who are incarcerated. In order to show up to work and preserve enough emotional energy for my students, I needed to put up blinders to certain conditions around me to get through the day.
While I was home over the holidays, I shared these thoughts with two former colleagues who are still working on Rikers Island. We discussed how easy it is for individuals who work in certain environments to get sucked into a silo and blinded to some conditions while focusing on others. Additionally, it is easy (and understandably so) to fall into the mentality that when working on macro issues such as extreme sentencing, the micro issues, such as the specific infrastructures of jails, take the back seat. However, there is entirely too much at stake to ignore or become numb to any features of the criminal justice system, both large and small, that strip away the humanity of others.
I recognize the urgency of continuing to take this step back, recharging my emotional energy, and learning from a new system here in Ireland, while still having candid discussions with others to help put things in perspective and hold me accountable to keep growing and learning.