Prison abolition is overdue

by Jacqueline Bediako

On March 4, I heard Angela Davis speak at the Beyond the Bars: Connecting the Struggles conference, which was held at Columbia University. Davis’ speech focused on the necessary abolition of the criminal justice system, specifically incarceration. As Davis spoke, I flicked through the mental photographs of Black men and women locked in cages. The story of Jamycheal Mitchell came to mind.

Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was arrested in April for allegedly stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven. – Photo: Facebook
Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was arrested in April for allegedly stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven. – Photo: Facebook

When I discovered that Mitchell had been found dead in jail, after spending close to four months locked up without bail for stealing groceries valued at $5, I sat on the edge of the sofa in my apartment and broke down in tears – another life had been sucked away. I cried for his wasted life, his invisibility and the reality of his mortality. I also cried because I felt an overwhelming connection to the spirit of this young man.

Mitchell, 24, was arrested in Portsmouth, Virginia, back in April 2015 for allegedly stealing a Snickers Bar, a Zebra Cake and a Mountain Dew from 7-Eleven. Mitchell, who had mental health problems, was discovered on the floor of his cell in August 2015.

According to The Guardian, the master jail officer, Natasha Perry, reported that his death supposedly occurred due to natural causes. Mitchell’s family believed that he starved to death after turning down medication and meals while in jail.

When I discovered that Mitchell had been found dead in jail, after spending close to four months locked up without bail for stealing groceries valued at $5, I sat on the edge of the sofa in my apartment and broke down in tears – another life had been sucked away.

Mitchell’s aunt, Roxanne Adams, stated in an interview that her nephew had been living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for approximately five years.

Mitchell’s death can be added to the list of Black people with mental health problems who have died in police custody. Twenty-one-year-old Matthew Ajibade, who suffered from bipolar disorder, died in an isolation cell. Natasha McKenna, 37, who also suffered from a mental illness, died after being shot multiple times with a taser. Samuel Harrell, 30, who had a history of mental illness, died in custody after being beaten up by a prison Beat-Up Squad comprised of corrections officers.

In a report released earlier this month, it was found that when officers from the Los Angeles Police Department shoot at suspects, their targets are disproportionately mentally ill or Black.

Mitchell’s death can be added to the list of Black people with mental health problems who have died in police custody.

In many cases, we see that Black people with mental health problems are neglected rather than taken to a hospital where proper care can be provided. Adams, Mitchell’s aunt, had attempted to have him transferred from jail to a mental health facility, but there were no available beds.

Within this corrupt system, Black people with mental health issues are abhorred, dehumanized and left to rot in the squalor of their mental pain and anguish. The inside of a jail cell is totally destructive to an already fragile mind; that’s just common sense.

Within this corrupt system, Black people with mental health issues are abhorred, dehumanized and left to rot in the squalor of their mental pain and anguish.

The criminalization of Black men and women induces me to recall a moment last summer when I walked past the criminal courts on Centre Street in Downtown Manhattan. An inscription was posted quoted Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion.”

To me this inscription is fallible and totally pathetic under the backdrop of the number of Black men and women killed, or indeed left to die, while in custody.

And there isn’t anything “equal” or “exact” about a man being incarcerated without bail for allegedly stealing a Snickers Bar, a Zebra Cake and a Mountain Dew.

Indeed, sometimes when one is in a state of desperation due to poverty, mental illness or just sheer loneliness, one’s actions may become misguided or irrational. What one needs in these circumstances is help.

Towards the end of 2015, it was announced that an additional $11 million would be added to Virginia’s state budget to develop mental health services for those entangled in the criminal justice system. This money arrived too late for Jamycheal Mitchell – it was confirmed that Mitchell died from weight loss and heart problems.

Sometimes when one is in a state of desperation due to poverty, mental illness or just sheer loneliness, one’s actions may become misguided or irrational. What one needs in these circumstances is help.

No system should be given the reins to “correct” another human being when it is unable to ponder and attempt to change its own ugliness.

Jacqueline Bediako
Jacqueline Bediako

No system can preach moral value, if it does not internalize those values and apply it to its own operations.

This means it’s time to abolish the current prison system.

Jacqueline Bediako is a Ghanaian writer, teacher and activist who was born in London, England. After completing her undergraduate studies in England, Jacqueline moved to America. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has called New York City home for the past eight years. Her work focuses on race, politics and the education of students with disabilities. Follow her @jb2721.