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Shining Light on Humanity

The System-Silenced Voices of Victims

by | Oct 2, 2022

 

“Ignoring negative things that need to be changed is destructive and does nothing to alleviate negativity. Instead, we should focus on the way we’re treating other people in our brief interactions with them.” 
— Tom Rath

The criminal legal system doesn’t care about victims. Even the use of words like “victim” keeps people trapped in their pain and trauma and strips them of their agency, their ability to ever be more than that person who had that thing happen to them once upon a time. They are labeled “victim” like we (those who have enacted harm or been caught breaking certain laws) are labeled “offender.”

People who have been harmed are subsequently victimized by the same system that professes to protect them. This is true regardless of the nature of the harm, and is especially true in many cases of domestic violence. While there are some supportive and community-based alternatives that are directly informed by DV survivors, those go beyond the scope of this month’s column. Here, I need to share with you a personal story of how an ill-timed argument between two people engaged to be married has led to unnecessary hardship and stress, and may derail of their futures.

What does a young couple have to do to survive probation? We are supposed to be living in a “post-racist” society, yet for the past several months, my eldest nephew (a light-skinned Black man) has been relaying to me numerous incidents of neighbors making monkey noises outside his window and yelling racist epithets and threats at him from a distance. It wouldn’t be as big of an issue if he didn’t have his fiancé’s safety to consider, as well as his own. Somehow, having the audacity to be in an interracial relationship is still unwelcome in Maine. Sadly, the police could be of no assistance without physical evidence of violence.

If the harassment had remained merely vocal, the turmoil that followed may never have come to pass. But it didn’t.*

A few weeks ago, one of the back tires on my nephew’s newly purchased used car blew as he was driving down the road with his fiancé. If he’d been driving any faster they might have lost their lives. Engaged in a burgeoning career as a carpenter, he thought maybe he’d run over a nail or screw on the job site.

If you’ve ever run over a nail, you probably know the damage shows up near the tread, not near the rim. And not with a clean, knife-point entry. And not in two places on the same tire, two inches apart.

This attempt on their lives was finally enough to drive this devoted couple from their home. My nephew’s on probation, which means he’s been fighting and clawing to hold onto his freedom every day for the past two and a half years. Thankfully, he’s had a truly decent and supportive probation officer for most of that time, so the struggles of life have not resulted in his re-imprisonment. But the stress has been constant, and his fiancé has stuck by him through it all.

Now homeless, the young couple were forced to live out of their car. Two adults living in a 2013 Mazda sedan is untenable. With both of them working full time, and he managing his probation check-ins and required program schedule, the stress became too much. There were early-morning arguments when one or the other woke up on the wrong side of the “bed” they no longer had.

Then, on one such morning, a petty argument erupted into screaming and became a public spectacle that brought onlookers and unwelcome interveners. Shortly after leaving the embarrassing scene, my nephew and his fiancé were pulled over by a police officer. When the young woman tried to explain to the officer that the argument had been blown entirely out of proportion, and that she and her fiancé were taking the day off of work to care for themselves, she was quickly labeled an uncooperative victim and a liar.

Police involvement means my nephew might be charged with a probation violation and, potentially, given new charges, either of which could send him back to prison. My nephew’s fiancé might lose her life partner, her transportion, and financial support. No one would be healed, supported or protected through that process.

The criminal legal system is a machine. It does not see nuance or humanity. It does not see how deeply it serves to keep people trapped in poverty and incarceration. It does not see the broad expanse of harm it causes to the very people it professes to protect. My nephew’s fiancé was stripped of her agency and power by that police officer and the other systems actors who followed. Labeled a victim. Silenced.

Now, in addition to creating one more victim, the system has placed in jeopardy a devoted long-term relationship, as well as the continued freedom of a young man who has been beat up by life and the carceral system since his early teens. We need to create community-based alternatives to incarceration that provide opportunities for healing and supportive intervention, rather than destruction. 

 

*Disclaimer: I fully acknowledge that there are many one-sided, horrifically abusive relationships that need supportive intervention, and that the relationship I describe here is not representative of all others. I further honor the pain, suffering and trauma in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. This column is in no way intended to diminish that truth.

Leo Hylton is a graduate student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. His education and work are focused on Social Justice Advocacy and Activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Rd., Warren, ME 04864, or leoshininglight@gmail.com. 

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