To the Editor:
“The Washington Post” recently published an issue about mass incarceration in America. In their Instagram post publicizing the issue, the Post described the goal of their issue as “help[ing] readers learn about the experience of imprisonment, something that is poorly understood by Americans who are untouched by the system.”
Similarly, we feel that conversations about the implications of mass incarceration are rarely discussed on campus. According to CNN, 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated at the end of 2016, with people of color and those of lower socioeconomic statuses being disproportionately affected. The United States prison system affects millions of Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds, including both those incarcerated and those with family members or loved ones who are incarcerated.
Considering that most Andover students come from places of racial and/or economic privilege, this lack of conversation around mass incarceration does not come as a surprise. Education at Andover about imprisonment is limited to a single senior English elective. Many students continue to remain uneducated about the ongoing systemic oppression of minorities and people of color that still pervades our society as a result of the prison system. This ignorance leads to increased insensitivity toward issues of imprisonment– including actions like turning “sexy prison inmate” into a Halloween costume, or shutting down conversations about this topic on campus.
While Andover prides itself on being an institution that values equity and inclusion, the minimization of this issue on campus proves that our community is not doing enough with regards to educating students about incarceration. We doubt that those whose actions present this insensitivity had bad intent. Rather, these actions reflect the way students are unaware of the trauma faced by those affected by the prison system. Additionally, while Andover students overall do not majorly represent the demographic of those affected by mass incarceration, there are still students affected by the system attending this school—including one of the writers of this letter. Our community’s refusal to recognize the problem in minimizing the effects of imprisonment is not inclusive of these students.
When I—Megan—think about my experience with the prison system, I think about my fatherless childhood, my family’s economic struggles without my father as a source of income, his P.T.S.D. from abysmal prison conditions, and his re-incarceration after his initial release. My experience is more common than our community lets on, and my father’s experience as a prisoner is much uglier than the joking sentiment about inmates reflected by things like Halloween costumes.
It is not the duty of the people directly affected by mass incarceration to carry the burden of educating those untouched by this system. Most people are unaware that mass incarceration and the broken criminal justice system of the United States prolong the racial hierarchy that has existed for centuries. There is a misconception that the racial bias and substandard conditions within the prison system are improving, but this is not true. Making light of the issue supports this misconception. Turning a blind eye to this matter is just as bad as intentionally performing actions that support this misconception about incarceration. In order to understand the ugly realities of the prison system, Andover students should take it upon themselves to learn about these issues, and the administration must also incorporate some form of programming into our curriculum that will help us cultivate an educated, sensitive, and empathetic understanding of incarceration.
Megan Vaz and Koki Kapoor