Today, the Arizona Department of Corrections is holding a “Family Day” at the Douglas Prison. This is not a day for family members like me to come visit their loved ones serving time in prison. Instead, it’s being touted as an opportunity for people to gawk at those imprisoned by our criminal justice system.
In a press release, the Douglas Complex Warden Glenn Pacheco stated it’s “a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and your family to experience.” It’s difficult to find the words to express my sadness that anyone could view my family’s reality as a day of entertainment.
The tour will showcase handcuffs, belly chains, and leg shackles to those who may never have to feel the cold metal around their flesh and the feeling of fear and powerlessness that accompanies it. A children’s bouncy castle will be on-hand to keep the kids smiling through the event. Have we truly allowed ourselves to become so jaded that we believe this “Family Day” is appropriate, let alone an example of great family fun?
The reality is our criminal legal system is so unjust that a single mistake could result in this “one-day, once in a lifetime opportunity” becoming a years-long, nightmare reality for any of us. My son, Tommy, is serving nearly a decade in prison for re-selling a laptop he bought off Craigslist that happened to be stolen. It’s not hard for a person to get swept up in our overzealous criminal system and end up behind bars.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. To me, this means the way we treat people in our prisons, some of the most vulnerable in our society, reflects ourselves. It could be a great thing for those who never have or never will experience the criminal justice system to get a real, transparent look at the brutality of Arizona’s prison system. But that is not what this “Family Day” will be.
People on the tour will view an administration building, training facilities, the outside of units, and the inside of a vacant unit. I am glad the unit will be vacant because people, like my son, do not deserve to be gawked at like animals in a zoo. But it also allows the Department of Corrections to manufacture and downplay what really happens in its prisons.
The public won’t get to see the people experiencing the torture of solitary confinement. They won’t get to see corrections officers abuse their power. They won’t experience the mental and physical torment of being locked up in a cage. They won’t hear people begging for adequate medical care for life-threatening illnesses and being ignored by prison officials. They won’t see loved ones who’ve traveled miles for a short visit be turned away at the gate because the shirt they are wearing is a forbidden color. They won’t hear these stories or begin to understand these traumas.
I hope that as the public tours the prison they will wonder: What happens behind these walls? How many people went to bed hungry last night? How are their futures going to be shaped by the cruelty that takes place in prison?
After the tour, as the guests are enjoying a free barbecue meal in the same dining room where incarcerated individuals used to eat, will they include a sampling of the unhealthy slop typically served in Arizona prison dining rooms? As they listen to “jailhouse rock and roll music” during the meal, will they have a chance to hear music, poems, and musings written by the many talented incarcerated people who find art is their only gateway to freedom?
I wish the public could see a real tour of Arizona prisons, not this sham. I wish prosecutors could see it every time they prepare the excessive sentences they so passionately and proudly present in plea offers and argue for before judges. It might forever change the way they approach their work.
Please, join me in opposing events like “Family Day” and rejecting the notion that our broken criminal justice system deserves to be celebrated.