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Photo by  Logan Weaver  via Unsplash
Photo by Logan Weaver via Unsplash

I have experienced firsthand the need for criminal justice and prison reform within the state of Virginia during my fifteen years of incarceration. Were I to list the many complaints and offenses perpetrated on us, the number would be too great. And yet, they call us the offenders. 

What of the offenses we suffer at the hands of this so-called justice system? Is it really justice? Or just-us? Just us — against them? I’m not speaking about racial injustice or inequality, for that is another matter altogether. I am speaking in terms of a system that seems its only prejudice is against justice itself. 

Sound the battle cry! The Call for Reformation has been declared. Great is the need, but few are the soldiers. Many began as strong warriors, but eventually grew weary in fighting what seemed to be a perpetual war of defeat. Year after year of petitioning the governor for clemency, meetings with the parole board, even seeking presidential pardons, is enough to knock the fight out of anyone. I too have fought this fight. We are tired and we need help. 

We need help and we are now getting it. Many have begun to take a look at the debauchery suffered by those trapped inside of America’s penal system. A system which shows no mercy and which has no regard nor regret for lives turned upside down. For families torn apart. No respect for the individual once a person becomes incarcerated. 

We are labeled offenders, inmates, criminals and felons. While each of these four words bears the weight of its own offensiveness, by far the stamp of the offender is the most repugnant of all. Yes, we did offend someone who was affected by our crime, but that term should also be applied to those in charge of our rehabilitation. 

Merriam-Webster defines the word “offender” as: one that offends. A word used much too lightly, too loosely, to describe one who is still human in spite of their mistakes. There is no human on earth who has never offended another. No human on earth that has not made a mistake. So technically all humans are offenders. I suppose it’s just that those of us locked behind bars are the criminal kind. 

Making headway is the realization that those of us locked down are not the only offenders. Gaining national attention is the fact that offenders are getting mistreated, marginalized and abused. 

I cannot speak for the men on the inside, but I can speak for the women who are constantly verbally, physically, mentally and emotionally abused. The abuse is ongoing. It has become habitual among the majority of staff. This abuse is just as damaging, if not more so, than the abuse many of us may have suffered prior to our incarceration. How does one deem that rehabilitating? 

This is destructive behavior exhibited by brutes and tyrants. Heartless, overworked and underpaid individuals whose only concerns are showing up to work and receiving a paycheck. No respect for anyone who is just as much a human as they are. Many fail to realize that the only differences between us and them is the uniform, and the fact that they weren’t caught for their offenses. In every other aspect, we are all one and the same. We have feelings, families, health issues, financial difficulties, and so on. One and the same. 

So what would make one treat another so inhumanely? Is my life not worth just as much as yours? If they serve us food they would themselves not eat, what makes it acceptable for us to eat? If I have a complaint of pain, why tell me that my symptoms are psychosomatic? But yet send me to an outside specialist who, after testing, finds a legitimate condition. Why address me with profanity, but when I respond likewise I’m issued a disciplinary infraction? Why provide poor quality things at outrageous cost when some of us survive off of our meager twenty-seven cents per hour income? The list goes on. 

There is much to be said and changed within America’s penal system. What will it really take? I would like to leave you with one final thought.

Delegate Rob Bell, a Republican, in an interview that was published in The News and Advance paper stated that, “Those policies that would make our schools more dangerous or result in the early release of violent offenders are the ones that are certainly causing the most unease among those of us who have made public safety a priority in the last few years.” 

I wonder if Bell has any friends who are employed as correctional officers in one of these overcrowded prisons? I wonder how he would refer to his friend who had worked his normal shift and was called back to work overtime. Driving home late at night after a double shift he was tired, distracted and struggling to stay awake. In a split second he struck and killed a pedestrian with his vehicle? 

Would he call his friend an offender? Would his friend’s accident not have offended the family of the deceased? His friend would then become a violent offender. He would become one of the people being mistreated, marginalized, and abused. That should be enough proof that it is time for a change. Clearly, the justice system has no respect for humanity.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.