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Prison reform advocate talks about the justice system

Caroline Isaacs to speak at ASU as part of the Seeking Justice in Arizona lecture series


Portrait of Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona.

Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona, is a guest speaker at the 18th annual Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series.

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August 24, 2022

Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona, has advocated for decades to reimagine and improve the criminal justice system.

On Sept. 19, she will deliver a lecture titled "Creating Safety Outside of the Punishment System," which is the second of three webinars in the 18th annual Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series hosted by the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

MORE: Reproductive rights, prison reform and voting equality take center stage in ASU lecture series

The school sat down with Isaacs to talk about abuse in the prisons, the criminalization of behavior and ways that the community can assist in reforming these systems.

Question: Please introduce yourself; where are you from?

Answer: I’m Caroline Isaacs, I’m originally from northeast Pennsylvania, a small town that is named Trucksville.

Q: What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The most significant lesson — one I am constantly re-learning — is about the importance and power of human relationships. It’s easy to get mired in a viewpoint or ideology and start seeing people as allies or opponents. We also make the mistake of thinking that facts and data are what make people change their behavior. The extreme isolation in our culture, combined with COVID and the polarization of political issues, makes it very difficult to just relate to people as human beings. But when we can do this, it is transformational. One of our most overlooked basic needs is connection and belonging, and it is what we all have in common.

Q: What types of social problems do you work on? Why do you think they are important?

A: For the last 25 years, I have been dedicated to rethinking and reforming what we mistakenly call the "criminal justice system." The reality is that what we have is a punishment system. It is designed not to produce safety or justice but for social control of people and groups that those in power find threatening, distasteful or useful (i.e., surplus labor). This system is at the nexus of virtually all social problems — poverty, violence, mental health issues, addiction, racism and inequality of almost every kind. The default response is to criminalize behavior we don’t like, fear or don’t understand. This work is important because criminalization and punishment are not solutions to these problems, and function to exacerbate them. The punishment system drains resources, including people, away from communities and locks it into a perpetual cycle of failure. This impacts all of us.

Q: Why do you think these problems exist?

A: First, and most obviously, because of the institutionalization of racism and economic inequality in all government structures. But it also has its roots in our toxic culture of extreme individualism and normalization of violence to solve problems. The utter disregard of collective or social responsibility for creating conditions that foster poverty, substance use, behavioral health problems and other root causes of criminalized behavior means that the default is to view these behaviors as inherent flaws in the person, making them “less than” and therefore disposable. This label of criminal and the underlying assumption of their behavior as evidence of a personal deficit then justifies all manner of abusive treatment and absolves society of any responsibility to aid the person. Our culture equates justice with retribution. We hurt people who hurt people, "an eye for an eye." Increasingly, we also hurt people who have hurt no one but themselves. This state violence is believed to keep people in line out of fear of the harsh consequences of their actions, which reveals a complete lack of understanding of why people break the law.   

Q: How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspires you to continue working for social change?

A: When I moved to Arizona in 1995, I had a one-year internship with the American Friends Service Committee. At the time, one of their big projects was the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which utilizes volunteers to conduct conflict resolution and communications skills workshops in prisons and in the community. I was told to go attend one such workshop over the course of a weekend at the Medium Security Federal Men’s Penitentiary in Tucson. I was terrified — a young woman walking into a prison to hang out with a bunch of incarcerated men for three days! I was absolutely blown away by the men I met there — some of the most brilliant, funny, insightful and fun people I had ever encountered. They schooled me on what prisons really are and do, and who is caught up in that system. It lit a fire for me — it was the one social justice issue that just made me the angriest. The incredible waste of these precious lives and the fallout on their families and communities is just staggering. I continue to believe that if we can confront what is broken about our punishment system, we can learn a new way of addressing people’s needs and our collective well-being.

Q: What do you like best about this work?

A: I love strategic thinking — struggling with complex problems and having the ability to be creative in thinking about ways to approach change. I also love being able to work with so many incredible people, learn their strengths, build community and dream together.

Q: What are a few concrete steps that people can take to address the justice issues you work on in the community?

A: Join our mailing list at justcommunitiesarizona.org. Elections matter: State legislators determine criminal sentencing laws and have the power to reform them. Prosecutors are elected at the county level. Judges are also elected in Arizona. But these are races that are largely ignored. Take the time to educate yourself on the record of people running, and do what you can as a constituent to make it clear to them that you want to see change.

On a personal level, begin questioning how individualism and normalization of punishment show up in your own life. If someone offends you, hurts your feelings or violates your boundaries, how do you respond? Do you distance or reject them, assuming that their motives were deliberately harmful? Or do you reach out, ask them why they did that, help them understand the impact of their actions, and give them the chance to make amends? Think about what makes you feel “safe.” Chances are, its relationships with other people, not punishment meted out by the government.

The Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series, now in its 18th year, brings in experts from our local communities to discuss critical national issues in an Arizona context. Each lecture is followed by a Q&A session and time to interact with the speaker informally. These events are free and open to the public, and are held virtually on Zoom from 3 to 4:15 p.m. Video recordings will be available on YouTube following each event.

Visit https://sst.asu.edu/seeking-justice for more information. Register here.

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