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Interview With Fr. George Williams

Interview With Fr. George Williams

Is there any similarity between the policy of the Modi-governed Indian government and the policy of the Trump-governed U.S. government in imprisoning a targeted mass in the name of immigration and crimes?  Is India also developing a new industry of prisons?  Questions emerging from perceiving some significant and natural connections between the policies of the two regimes in the recent phenomena of targeted detention and mass incarceration in both the countries, Vincent Pereppadan, a Jesuit graduate student at University of San Francisco, speaks to George Williams, a Jesuit priest who has been serving the death row inmates for over a quarter of a century at San Quentin Prison of San Francisco, perhaps, the largest death-row in the Northern hemisphere.  Every week he walks past the eerie and dark thickened beyond the 12-foot high black doors at the entrance of the building, above which it is written, “CONDEMNED ROW” in calligraphic lettering, where well over 750 men are kept under an almost palpable air of oppression.  He listens to them, in a space where some of them have been for past 30 years, celebrates the Eucharist with them, discusses theology of hope and life with them, which, for them, is the only human communication.  George responds to some of the significant questions which may give the reader insights into the current Indian scenario of mass incarceration move, which is implicit in the recent law passed by the Indian Parliament. 

Vincent: I'm so grateful for giving me this precious time. And I know that you have been with this ministry for the prisoners, available for them pastorally and also for counselling, for the past 26 years, which is more than a quarter of a century. So that's a great time. And it has been a unique ministry. My first question is: The United States houses the largest number of prisoners in the world. The statistics show that 25% of world's prisoners are in the U S while it has 5% of world's population. So, what do you think is the reason of mass incarceration in the United States?

George: I think the main reason is a history of violence and racism in our culture. We have not been able to adequately address the issues of systemic racism, in the way that it causes large numbers of people in this country, because of their color or their ethnic origin to remain trapped at the bottom of our economic ladder, without many opportunities to advance. Of course, there are exceptions. But it's systemic racism that really keeps people from flourishing. And it keeps our culture from really flourishing as well. I think we also have a history of violence in this country. Look at the gun laws and the just the Wild West frontier mentality that condones violence to a certain degree. But because of this violence, we experience a lot of violent crime, although the majority of people in prison these days are probably not there for violent crime. They're there because of drugs and some something related to addictive behavior. So, I would say, it's our economic system that’s unequal. Wealth is concentrated in a small number, a very small percentage of people. So, the economic opportunities that are inherent in our country are not really available to everybody. So, it's just the inequality of wealth, these systemic unresolved issues of racism, which is a legacy of slavery, have contributed to the number of people in our prison.

That's correct. That shows the real crux of the problem. Now, in your experience of long 26 years of prison ministry, how do you think that this system of punishment is harder and harsher to the African Americans or the people of color? What do you think the reason is?

Well, I don't think it's harsher to African Americans. I just think that there are more African Americans disproportionately represented in the system. The system is equally punitive to everybody in it, white, black, native American, Asian, doesn't matter. Once you're in the system, I think we have a rather cruel system in terms of, not so much that it's physically painful, but we keep people in prison for long, long periods of time, 30, 40, 50 years, for crimes that in other countries they might at the most get 10 or 15 years in it. And it varies from state to state how we treat our prisoners. But it's not like, it sounds like certain populations are singled out for additional punishment. I think everybody in the system is punished.

But there's a conversation that there are differences in treatments. If you are black, or if you're white, things are rather different.

Well, blacks and whites commit approximately the same number of crimes per capita. However, black people are more likely to be arrested for certain crimes. A lot has to do with the policing methods in this country. The concentration of black Americans in urban areas, in neighborhoods where poverty is, separate them, they're cutoff because of poverty and economic inequality. So, more [blacks] than [whites] get caught in the net of the criminal justice system. But it's not, as though, any one group of people is more criminal than another group or committing more crimes. It's just that we don't apply the rules equally across the board. I think this goes back to some degree, to institutionalized racism. But it's not simply that, it's economic. But once they're in the prison system, pretty much everybody's treated equally poorly. I think the issue around sentencing comes in because a lot of the laws that were made at the beginning of the time of mass incarceration.  They began as a reaction to explosion of crack cocaine and certain other drugs that were criminalized, but they tended to be criminalized in such a way that the type of cocaine being used by blacks and poor whites was higher, resulted in more harsh sentencing, than upper class white Americans using powdered cocaine. So, and of course, the heroin epidemic now is, pretty much across the board as you know, white and black. It's a real scourge of people who were poor, and experiencing somewhat, I would say despair. I mean, it's a lack of hope.

So, you think that once they're in this system, then they are treated rather poorly?

I don't think that. My experience is not that black people in the prison system are more harshly treated. It's just that they're disproportionally represented. So, there's more of them in this system. From my experience working in Massachusetts and in California, everyone's treated poorly.

Well, there're also conversations that sometimes the economically poor prisoners are unable to present their case.

Well, the vast majority of people in our prison system are poor, unless someone is caught, you know, committing a murder or something like that. You don't have many people in our prison system who are from the upper middle class, educated people. The majority of people who end up in prison are poor and that's white and black Americans.

Here there is a quote that I have read in one of the articles: "Prisons and policing represents mechanisms of the state that are critical to maintenance of power, especially, during periods of political or economic crisis.” How do you respond?

When I was doing my dissertation, I enjoyed reading a type of criminology research that's called Critical Criminology which tends to look at things from a leftist Marxist hermeneutic. I find that that sort of statement is somewhat simplistic. I think there's truth to it, but I think it's an ideological statement. I'm not sure that there's a lot of empirical evidence to support that.

Why I ask this is, today India is also facing a huge economic crisis and the government is trying to divert attention of the public, either by putting Kashmir as an issue by striking down the Article 370, which has been giving as special position or special recognition for the state. Or, today, the entire attention of the country is brought around a conversation of the whole crisis over Citizenship Registry while issues like economic and political are kept out there not being allowed to speak about.

Well, I am only superficially aware of the Indian political system and I, so am not really qualified to speak on that. However, I would say clearly in this country, for example, it seems that the powerful people, specifically the Republicans in this case, seem to want to deflect attention from say, president Trump's behavior. And they find various ways to divert the issue to other things that distract and confuse people. So, I think it's the nature of unbridled political power to be repressive. Authoritarian governments are going to be like that. And I think we all are hopefully aware of that enough that we run dangers of that in this country as well as yours. I think that quote that you just read is true. When you have a government that does not have checks and balances and that people have political power and they're abusing it, I think, in a more democratic system that would not be the case. I think that speaks probably to the flaws in our systems. Now I think in this country where it manifests often is in the corrupting nature of privatized prisons where prisons are run as businesses and for-profit in law. And they can only function in collusion with government agencies as contractors to the government or vice versa. And so, there I think opens up many avenues for potential abuse and exploitation of people.

That's why it's called the prison industry?

'Prison industrial complex' was a term that was coined by people on the Left. I'm not sure if Angela Davis is the one who coined it, but definitely, I think it's a fair description of what happens when the economic interests and the government interests become so corrupted. The trouble with the private prison system is that it commodifies people. And again, the people who are being affected most are the poor. And unfortunately, in this country, a lot of those privatized prison corporations are involved in the immigration and detention process with the Department of Homeland. So, there's at any time you have, whether it's the military industrial complex or the prison industrial complex, there's, corruption and exploitation. But whether it's a direct, a malicious plan on the part of the government or if it's simply a combination of different forces coming together, I'm not sure. But it's telling that when, before the last election, under Obama, the federal government had decided to stop using private prisons for the federal system. And as soon as Trump came in, they threw all that away and invited the private prisons back in.

It is said that by their inhuman treatment, especially with regard to solitary confinement, locking up, isolating, torturing, a record number of people for record number of years. Do you think that they are setting a new standard for desensitizing society?

I think we have been desensitized to violence by a number of things, including the media over the years. A kind of a coarsening of our culture, an acceptance of violence, things that would have been absolutely pornographic 25, 30 years ago are pretty much shrugged off now. So, I think there is sort of a problem in our culture with the desensitization to those things. And I think, as a result, it's a dehumanizing force. And of course, you would always see the decline in religious affiliation, the rise of fundamentalism, which is really, I think, antithetical to real spiritual growth. And there's a kind of a loss of our sense as Americans, our sense of community, our sense of vision of a world where there's hope. And you know, when I was little, there was a sense of openness and progress and excitement about the future. Now it seems people lost that belief in the future, that American dream, if you want to call it that. So, I think that, people have been desensitized as a result. It's made it easier for people to accept some of the excesses that have happened over the last 50 years in the American prison system, including solitary confinement. Now, in the last 10 or 15 years, there's been a change. And actually, most places are moving away from the really long, harsh solitary confinement regimes that we had imposed. So, now at San Quentin, we no longer keep men in solitary for more than a few months. When I first got there, it was for years and it was obvious that the men, who had been kept in those conditions for years, were completely damaged by that. But we're not doing that anymore as a result of activism, laws, legal changes, and hopefully a little different consciousness on the part of the state. But by all means, they're all connected. I think that the lack of a sense of community and caring and, it's dehumanizing.

Okay. My last question is a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky. "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." What has been your experience?

Yeah, I have that quote on my wall in my office. I think it's true. When I was in Europe on sabbatical, I was in Spain for four months and I visited a couple of Spanish prisons. And it was very depressing because what has happened in this country since the 1970s is, we've actually gone backwards in terms of our penology and our attitude toward crime and rehabilitation, whereas other countries in Europe, at least some of Europe, have moved forward. So, as we've gone back, they've gone forward and the gap between the two countries has widened and it seemed that there was much more of a sense of respect for the possibility of change for their prisoners and an attempt to provide more humane rehabilitation programming. In this country, we, for many, many years, just abandoned the idea of rehabilitation. It was all about deterring crime and incapacitating people so they could not commit more crimes. Even the rhetoric was around what were called “Super predators” and it was a thinly veiled racism in there too because we had the image of the criminal as the black male in this country. And I think if you were to walk into any number of prisons in this country, especially, many brand-new prisons, they are high tech but they're sterile. They're lifeless, they're cruel places. And I think if you look at our current national discourse, it's sterile, it's cruel, that's devoid of humanity. And I think the prisons are simply a reflection of the bigger, the greater culture.

So, you seem to have been depressed, I mean, by seeing this continuously. How do you overcome that?

Yes, it’s depressing, but I still have hope things will get better.

It’s disappointing that the Church and even the Jesuits are so minimally engaged in these issues, but I’m inspired by the example of Pope Francis who consistently calls prisoners to our attention.  Other than that, I pray, and I take inspiration from the men I’ve seen who have come through the prison system and still manage to get out and have good and meaningful lives.

(Published on 27th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 18)