I Went to Jail. Guess What? I Still Value My Rights and Care About My Privacy: Choose Privacy Week 2019

by Lisa Harris
(Lisa Harris wrote this piece in the voice of the thousands of inmates that she has worked with over the past 28 years. The issue of privacy has been and will continue to be one of concern for inmates and for all marginalized peoples.)

Dear fellow human being,

I got arrested and charged with a crime earlier this year. When all is said and done, I’m most likely going to do some real jail time. For something that I probably did. That makes me sad, and of course, more than a little angry, for a few reasons. Let me explain.

I’m a regular person, just like you. I’m a black man, born in this country, around 36 years of age. People who look like me are incarcerated in the United States at a rate 3.5 times that of white men (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016). Men in this country, of any race, are imprisoned at a rate 6 times that of women (BOJS et al.) In short, maybe I’m like you; maybe I’m not. But understand that people who fit my general description and demographic are probably going to be my neighbors when I go to jail.

I know I’ll be giving up some rights and privileges, such as they have been in my life, when I go to jail. That’s the definition of a jail, right? I’d like to add here, not by way of excuse for my crime, but by way of explanation, that I have not had an easy life. In the words of Marvin Gaye, “I came up hard,” and because of that, jail or prison was pretty much a likelihood for kids like me. The Brookings Institution recently released research that found that “boys born into households in the bottom 10% of earners are 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born into the top 10%.” (Brooking Institution, “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration”, 2018). And because we came up hard, my family did not have their fair share of the rights and privileges afforded to all Americans. My siblings and I went to some of the worst schools in our city, when we could go. Not surprisingly, I didn’t do great in school. The National Center for Education Statistics explained my crappy experience in school when they found that poverty during early childhood, was related in part, to lower levels of academic performance “beginning in kindergarten and extending through elementary and high school.” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016)

I can testify that poor people in the United States really do have less of everything: less money, less safety, less access to opportunities for success…and guess what? LESS PRIVACY.

Maybe you remember the old 70’s movie Claudine with James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll, specifically the Welfare Man scene where Claudine, the single “welfare mother” of six, prepares for a visit from the welfare social worker. Claudine and her children hide from the coming intruder any trace of “luxury” (a working iron and toaster, for instance), along with any evidence of a man living on the premises. When the social worker arrives, she grills Claudine mercilessly about whether she has an unreported job, in response to a cynical comment by Claudine that she has, naturally, been living like a queen. And all while Gladys Knight preaches in the background “…it’s like a private eye for the FBI…” Well, my mama tells me she lived like that, and as kids, we did too. My mama and her brothers and sisters hated it. And we did too.

I’m here to tell you: Poor people value things like privacy too.

And 45 years after Claudine, things aren’t any better for poor people and our privacy. “Current public benefits programs ask applicants extremely detailed and personal questions and sometimes mandate home visits, drug tests, fingerprinting, and collection of biometric information.” (Ciara Byrne, Fast Company, 03/19). The constitutionality of this has been upheld by the Supreme Court, as recently as 2007. And guess what else? We hear about data breaches at companies that have access to our data every day: Target, Yahoo, Home Depot, eBay. For you, having your data stolen will mean trouble. You have to report it, and figure out if accounts are opened in your name, and then have them closed – all definitely a headache. But the stakes are higher for poor people when our data is stolen. Our gas and electricity might be shut off, or we might lose out on a job because our credit is messed up. Worse yet: we might even get picked up for a crime someone else committed in our name.

Maybe you are getting a picture of what privacy means to poor people living in America by now? Good. Now take everything you have learned and squeeze it into the microcosm of what it’s like to be poor in America: any jail or prison in this country.

Yes, I’m going to jail. And I probably deserve to go. Guess what? I still value my rights. And I care about my privacy. I know that when I go to jail, my time, my space, my mental and physical energy no longer belong to me. As a guest of the jail I’m going to, it’s pretty much an agreed upon fact that I no longer possess the same rights and privileges that law-abiding citizens have access to. Although the relatively recent Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates that inmates have the right to not be strip-searched by a guard of the opposite sex, the Supreme Court has ruled that inmates have no right to privacy in their cells, and even in their bodies. All that upsets – and scares – me. It should scare you too.

Jails have monitored inmates’ letters, phone calls, and visits for a long time. “Video visitation” in place of face to face visitation in jails and prisons across this country mean two things: 1) the lack of privacy with video visiting means that the dynamic of the jail visit is changed for the worse – families complain that jail staff can and regularly do comment on the nature of interactions that occur during these video visits, and 2) something that was once free – an inmate’s visit with a loved one – is now monetized, with the costs of these visits often out of reach for families.

I know that I will have access to books and other reading material while I am in jail, but I also know that jails are starting to give inmates access to e-books via tablets, which means that what I read while I’m locked up will now be monitored more closely and can be legally used against me if necessary.

I mentioned that I am scared about all of this, and that you should be too. Why, you ask? First, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Second, and what may frighten you the most, is that the ways in which privacy concerns are being cast aside with greater frequency for the poor and incarcerated among you, and the harm that results, most likely signal what may be coming for the rest of you.


A Fellow Human Being and Future Inmate

Lisa Harris is manager of Social Justice Services for the Alameda County Library in California.