Early Wednesday morning, Aaron Hernandez joined the long list of incarcerated people, including Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder, who allegedly committed suicide while in prison, or soon after being released.
We should not be mistaken about who or what is to blame: prisons and jails. The prison-industrial complex and the various ways it promotes the profiteering of black and brown bodies—coupled with lack of mental and emotional support, sexual violence and shoddy investigations into reported abuses—must be held responsible for its complicity in violence and death.
Just days after Hernandez was acquitted in a double-murder case, the convicted murderer and former New England Patriots tight end was found hanged in his Massachusetts prison cell. It’s hard to rally around him, since many wouldn’t consider him the perfect victim; and he wasn’t. Hernandez was already incarcerated for the June 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. He was also incredibly smug and had never seemed apologetic for taking someone’s life. But thankfully, social justice doesn’t rest on the ability to speak out only for those who seem perfect. It’s about consistently calling out systems of oppression that abuse power, leading to death and improper investigations.
To be clear, this isn’t even about defending or protecting Hernandez inasmuch as it is about recognizing the complicity of prison systems in promoting violence, particularly when suicides, murders and cover-ups are involved.
In her 2016 book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Davis discusses that globally, in order to solve problems, the judicial system merely sends people to prison—and then does nothing else. No focus on upbringing, employment, redistribution of resources or wealth, or promoting restorative justice. Davis notes: “[I]n prison, they find themselves within a violent institution that reproduces violence. In many ways you can say that the institution feeds on that violence and reproduces it so that when the person is released he or she is probably worse.”
Let’s start there.
The prison system doesn’t attempt to solve problems because that would entail looking at cause and effect; so, instead, prisons exacerbate them. Prisons have always been in a state of reform, in part because the focus is never on looking for root causes of why people commit crimes—including lack of social services, racism, unavailability of mental-illness prevention and treatment, unemployment, poverty, homelessness; instead, prosecutors quickly charge, and judges and juries swiftly lock people up, to solve a perceived problem.
Prisons are violent. We know this, but that fact is rarely taken into account before defendants are sentenced to long sentences that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars. We also know that prisons are intentionally designed to dehumanize and demoralize human beings, often going beyond punishment. Try as I might, it rarely shocks me when I hear of prison suicides (other than Bland’s, because her mistreatment—from stop to arrest to custody—was unconstitutional from law enforcement’s initial interaction). Given that the American prison system is violent in itself, it is no longer shocking that a person would attempt to escape.
Prisons and jails are obligated to safeguard inmates from harm, but the chances of that happening are slim when the prisons are the institutions causing harm. State prisons and local jails are so violent that data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics not only shows an uptick in deaths but also underscores that in 2015, local jails were the leading cause of death for U.S. inmates. It’s clear that these are not spaces where those experiencing incarceration can return and be productive members of society. What’s worse, because we have already decided that they shouldn’t receive proper treatment, many of us ignore how marginalized people outside of prisons receive double the harsh treatment inside them.
That’s critical because if prison systems can lead to the death of people like Hernandez, then it really means death for system-oppressed people, such as black and brown women and LGBTQ folks. What I’m not saying is that society must start paying attention to the problems of prison systems because of what recently occurred with Hernandez; my arc of justice will never bend toward straight, wealthy men who never center black queer and transgender people.
I am, however, saying that our history has tended to value straight men more than women, LGBTQ individuals and those outside the margins. That leaves me wondering: If we haven’t recognized the problem when it has affected straight men, will we ever notice it for less marginalized populations? Likely not.
This makes even more sense when we think about the widespread sexual violence that LGBTQ people experience in prison. In 2011 the book Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, one of the first reports to underscore gender and sexual minorities’ prison experiences, highlighted that although sexual abuse is a common prison experience for many inmates, it is LGBTQ inmates who are disproportionately targeted. We also know that transgender inmates suffer violence at the hands of staff and fellow inmates. Not only are many denied hormone therapy, but many are placed in housing counter to how they identify, already a form of violence.
Five years ago, I thought that reform was possible for all prisons. I have since learned that before reform, there must be the understanding of why change is even required. We are not yet there. Prisons are violent; they reproduce violence; they are homophobic; and rape occurs. Prisons and jails are a microcosm of the toxicity that we see outside of prisons; we must scrutinize the need for them—regardless of inmates and their offenses.
I’m not sure what happened to Hernandez on Wednesday night. Could he have committed suicide? Certainly. Could it be part of the same scheme designed by global capitalism, with prisons (and staff) being its highest bidder? Yes. But it’s critical to realize that these two questions are not mutually exclusive because, regardless, prisons’ complicity in violence leads to the same answer every time.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, activist and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with The Root and The Grio and has written for The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, Out Magazine, Ebony.com and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.