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Retribution or Change? The Progressive Support for the Prison-Industrial Complex

Like many progressives, I’ve been following the Tyler Clementi case with much interest, because it’s part of a larger ongoing conversation about the dangers of being queer in the United States. As the trial wound up and people started discussing the verdict, I found myself utterly fascinated by the intensity and viscerality of the progressive calls to lock Dharun Ravi up and throw away the key. People expressed outrage, horror, and disgust at his comparatively light prison sentence and the fact that he wouldn’t be deported.

I was disgusted too, but not at the outcome of the trial. Rather, I was horrified by my fellow ‘progressives’ and their unabashed embrace of the prison-industrial complex in the United States, which chews up young men of colour and spits them out. This isn’t the first or the last time that the fraught progressive relationship with the US justice system was on full display, and it’s troubling to me that there’s so much widespread acceptance, and support, of the way the current system works.

When pressed, many progressives indicate that they have concerns about racial inequalities in the US justice system. They are aware of racial profiling and the grossly disproportionate representation of people of colour in prison. Some are also concerned about mandatory sentencing and other flawed laws that determine who goes to jail or prison and for how long. Many also express worries about safety within the prison system, particularly for LGBQT prisoners.

But many progressives stop short of questioning the prison system itself, and asking why it exists in its current form. There’s a social myth that prison is rehabilitative, intended to lead people on the path to personal change, but it’s pretty obviously punitive and retributive. Those paying lip service to the rehabilitative meme are well aware that reform is not what prison is for. People calling for Ravi’s imprisonment wanted to see him punished for what he did. Asking him to spend an extended time in prison wasn’t about hoping for rehabilitation, but about a punitive  measure, a reactive lashing-out.

And those wanting to see him deported were playing even more deeply into myths about justice in the United States. The same progressives who express concern about the way we handle immigrants were loudly shouting for Ravi’s expulsion from this country; game over, go home, we don’t want your kind here. You will have no more chances in this place. Calling for his deportation was a form of direct participation in the deeply flawed, dangerous, and racist system that tortures and abuses immigrants not just in the US, but around the world.

People didn’t seem to experience any logical inconsistencies or cognitive dissonance here, when it came to demanding that Ravi be trapped by the prison-industrial complex in the United States. And they betrayed their true colours by focusing on retribution and punishment, rather than rehabilitation and reform.

What Ravi did was wrong. Categorically and clearly wrong. Whether or not his actions led to Clementi’s death—and there’s compelling evidence that the videos did in fact contribute to Clementi’s suicide—they were invasive and wildly inappropriate. Videoing someone without consent is not okay, particularly in intimate moments in the privacy of your own room, where you think you are safe and out of the public eye. Ravi could have dealt with his discomfort around his roommate in many ways, like requesting a room change, but instead he chose to act out in an incredibly juvenile and disgusting way, to exploit Tyler and make him a subject of mockery.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide was a tragedy.

And Dharun Ravi does need to be held accountable for it. But sending him to prison, or deporting him, is not the answer, if your goal is actual change, reform, some kind of healing and progress out of this case. Punishing Ravi accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t bring Clementi back, and it doesn’t send a strong message to people contemplating similar actions; if creating object lessons worked, our prison system would be empty by now, right? Because no one would ever commit crimes.

People who do terrible things aren’t going to be dissauded from them by one cautionary tale. Providing Ravi with a chance for reform, on the other hand, could lead to a true social catalyst. Maybe with an opportunity for reflection, Ravi could come to a place of genuine understanding. And he could bring that to the community around him; rather than being locked up to molder in a prison cell, he could become a speaker and advocate. He could talk about the harm he inflicted and could become an agitator for change.

The approach to justice in the United States is deeply and categorically flawed. And those flaws extend into the progressive community, which lobbies to lock people up forever and deport them even as it claims to care about the serious race and class problems rife in the US justice system. Critically, progressives claim to care about the capacity for understanding and change, and the possibility of reform and genuine changes of mind, but they don’t actually want to provide people with an opportunity to do that. Ravi’s not the only person progressives have raked through the coals and thrown away.

What Ravi did was horrific. I am not disputing that. The question here shouldn’t be how he should be punished, though, but how he can be held accountable, and what, if any, good can come from this. Imprisoning Ravi makes him into a martyr, and fosters even more hatred and fury. It ensures that any potential for reform is eliminated, turning Ravi into a reactive, furious man.

Giving Ravi a chance to make reparations for his crime won’t bring Clementi back either, but it might be a small step towards actual change.


  1. automaticdoor wrote:

    This is a topic that also has been bothering me, and I have been wondering: within our current system, what options *are* there to hold Ravi accountable as opposed to throwing away the key, so to speak? What reparations can he make? Required courses of study? Hours of community service?

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  2. CMM wrote:

    Thank you for this! The cognitive dissonance of supposed progressives around this issue is infuriating. One of my local elected officials – who is, like me, a lesbian – sent out an email lay week saying that the Ravi sentence was “a slap in the face to everyone who believes in equal rights for all.” I was deeply offended and asked to be taken off her email list immediately. It showed an astounding lack of awareness that other LGBTQ people and other people on the left do not support complicity with the PIC.

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  3. k wrote:

    I think it’s because right now, the only way we know how to talk about justice involves wanting perpetrators locked up for a long while, doing hard time, etc. We don’t have very much language for justice that isn’t about harsh punishment.

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  4. I am currently preparing to train as a psycho-therapist, and, as a cradle Catholic with a theology degree, I am fascinated by guilt; particularly how it can be useful and all the un-useful ways we use guilt. It seems to me that all society is interested in is that people feel their guilt, but is in no way interested in the transformative power of that guilt. As long as they feel their guilt, we can pride ourselves in that, whatever we do have on our conscience, at least we don’t have *that* on it.

    When we feel guilt over an action, if we do not come to terms with that guilt, we condemn ourselves to repeating the same reaction to any situation we find ourselves in that bears a similarity to that first situation. A prison system that ensures an offender feels guilt over an action, but does not offer the help and support needed to confront that guilt and see alternative responses to the situation, ensures that offenders will repeat offend, and so ensures its perpetuation.

    If all my career dreams come true, I will work with repeat offenders. But, I fear, for all my career dreams to come true, first the prison system (even here in the UK, which does not have quite such extreme problems as the US, as far as I can tell without any direct contact with either system, but is still massively flawed) must re-imagine its entire approach to retribution and rehabilitation. I won’t hold my breath!

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  5. GallingGalla wrote:

    The spectacle of progressives calling for Ravi’s departure just makes me sick. Here we are, saying how racist our immigration system / ICE / the PIC is, and yet actively engaging in racism in calling for the hammer of state power to come down on his head.

    The idea of a person who committed an act of violence being held accountable to the community, however, only works if that person agrees to being held accountable. Really, what are the chances that Ravi feels genuine remorse over what he did? If he does, then I agree that him sitting down with Clementi’s family and the LGBTQI community and asking *us* how he can best be accountable to us, and then him truly committing himself to doing those things, can work.

    However, I’ve not seen any evidence of remorse on his part. He’s heading down the road of being a serial abuser / rapist (and I think what he did to Clementi is tantamount to rape), and such people will *always* find a way to avoid accountability. He’ll feign pseudo-accountability to placate us for a few months, move somewhere else, lay low for a while, then start pressuring women for “sex” while plying them with alcohol, or engage in more homophobic / transphobic violence. And maybe that particular community will try to hold him accountable for that violence, and he’ll just slip away to another venue or location. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    It’s damned frustrating. I don’t think that throwing him (or anybody) in jail will do a damned bit of good. If he doesn’t want to be held accountable, jailing him will just embitter him – and it’s worse, because even if he *does* want to be held accountable, jailing him won’t give him that opportunity. At the same time, if he doesn’t want to be held accountable, there’s no community process that can possibly do so.

    So what does the LGBTQI / womyn’s community do then? Do we establish a nationwide network to be vigilant about him and guys like him, and ensure that he cannot be a danger to us? Do we ensure that every potential employer is aware of his past behavior? And if so, how is that kind of internal exile any less isolating or punitive than imprisoning him?

    And where do we draw the line between ensuring that were not playing into racist systems and ensuring that it doesn’t become All About Ravi when the focus needs really to be All About Clementi (and about the safety of womyn and LGBTQI people)? After all, Clementi and his loved ones are the victims in this case, not Ravi.

    I *do not* want Ravi imprisoned nor do I want him deported. But I want assurances that he will be held accountable, and if he refuses to admit his culpability, I don’t see how that will happen. The situation saddens and frustrates me.

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Clare wrote:

    “Videoing someone without consent is not okay”

    He did more than that, though. Videotaping someone in a sexual situation without their consent is sexual assault (maybe not legally, but it should be). The way a lot of progressives have reacted to this case is racist as fuck, but the depictions of what he did as merely a mean prank is wrong.

    Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  7. Hannah wrote:

    Thanks for this article – it is a necessary addition to these conversations about justice.

    It is crucial that we look to find the roots of injustice and attack those, rather than accept that our current modes of dealing with justice are apt to handle something like this or any other crime, really.

    My only criticism of this piece would be that I believe there are many people in the progressive community who do not fit this profile. Actually, most of the progressives I know and surround myself with in college would never advocate prison as a means of punishing Clementi, even though they are extremely dedicated to queer advocacy, suicide prevention, etc. I would urge the author to recognize the large, educated, and deep-thinking community of progressives that look at these issues as the complex problems they are, and look to address them in more productive ways. We exist! Don’t worry!

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  8. dz wrote:

    I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about the case initially but was leaning toward a harsh sentence for Ravi. It took Dan Savage, of all people, to change my mind. Dan has fucked up ideas about a lot of things, but he was the first progressive who really made me think about this case.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  9. Isa wrote:

    I think bringing up the crucial difference between punishment and accountability is so important. Good entry, thank you.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink