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Zeraph Dylan Moore is co-coordinator of the Penobscot County Jail Storytelling Project, a multidisciplinary effort to listen to and amplify the stories of people who have been incarcerated in Penobscot County Jail.
Since late last year, I have been engaged in an effort to collect the stories of people who have spent time inside Penobscot County Jail. When I began, I knew that these stories would be difficult and complex, but what I did not expect was how similar they would be.
Each person that I and my team interview has experienced some combination of mental illness, substance dependency, disability, homelessness and trauma. Their life stories reflect a series of escalating unmet needs. Many who landed in jail first found that they could not find a bed in a rehab facility, accessible mental healthcare, or a home to live in. Their stories point us to a larger reality: Our jails and prisons in the United States are, in practice, facilities which detain people with untreated illnesses who are living in poverty.
In Maine last year, 502 people died from drug overdoses. Increasingly, we have learned to view the opioid epidemic as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Yet our priorities as a state continue to be focused on criminalization, with a lack of adequate resources for substance use disorder treatment and safe withdrawal. However, the recent call to divest from the criminal-legal system and invest in healing our communities is gaining support rapidly. In the recent Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety report on the Maine biennial budget, members voted unanimously to support more substance use disorder treatment in our state budget, noting that “[o]ur neighbors continue to suffer from this disorder, get arrested, are incarcerated and die because Maine does not provide substance use disorder services.”
Roughly half the committee expressed support for furthering this objective by diverting 50 percent of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s budget to fund substance use disorder treatment and safe withdrawal facilities. What was once a radical idea is now becoming good common sense.
As a county, as a state and as a nation, we continue to struggle to shed a legacy and set of values which no longer represent us. Our understanding of crime, poverty, substance use and mental illness is evolving, yet our old system of ineffective punishment and empty moralizing continues to endure. We now know, for example, that increased incarceration has little to no impact on crime rates. A 2017 report, “What Caused the Crime Decline?,” analyzed 40 years of data from all 50 states and found that incarceration “has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years” and increased incarceration has had no effect on crime rates since 2000. Instead, the decline in crime is traceable to demographic factors, such as income increases and an aging population.
In addition, jails and prisons create new harms: They cause the loss of jobs and housing, generate an enduring stigma within the community, trigger shame and trauma, and expose incarcerated people to a heightened risk of physical and sexual violence. They interrupt healthcare access, causing impacts that may last for years to come. For people who are compliant with legally prescribed maintenance drugs such as methadone to manage their substance use disorders, going to jail may mean losing access to those lifesaving drugs. To see an example, we only need to look to our own communities: Penobscot County Jail does not allow incarcerated people access to their prescribed methadone treatment as a matter of policy, with only very rare exceptions.
The question is no longer whether we should rethink incarceration. We know that we must, and that effort is already underway. The question is whether we have the courage to make the changes we know we need to make, with urgency and dedication.