Here is what is making me the most concerned about the West Memphis Three. Well, okay. There are a lot of things that concern me about the situation. But this is what’s been foremost on my mind.
One thing I learned from my internship working with women fighting both addiction and criminality: Being in the criminal justice system does not leave one unmarked. The very setting of a jail or prison can be highly traumatizing, even if the often-cited prison rapes never happen. On the one side, you have the authority figures monitoring your every move, dictating what you can and cannot do, restricting you to a crowded, depressing setting for years of your life, and eventually wearing away your ability to function as an independent entity. And on the other side, adding more pressure, you have the prison population, many individuals of whom may be manipulative, threatening, violent, and more viciously hierarchical due to being in such close quarters with so few resources. Every day your health, mental well-being (and mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in this population), and even life may be in danger.
When that happens in a war zone, we call one of the potential results PTSD and we seek help for the soldiers (sometimes–I have my own criticisms of the military’s abandonment of their people). But do we think about PTSD in relation to prison populations? Or do we just assume that because these are “bad people”, they’re just getting what they deserved for whatever “bad thing” they did?
To me, while I acknowledge the lack of guilt on the part of the WM3, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a person tossed into that milieu is guilty or innocent. I am concerned for all. Prisons aren’t for rehab. They’re for keeping people locked up and brainwashing the general populace into thinking they’re “safe” because all those drug addicts and prostitutes and thieves and murderers are off the streets. But removing people from society only fixes a symptom, and “fix” is relative. It does little for the base problems which contribute to the social dysfunctions that lead people into criminality in the first place. It’s just easier to lock someone away and pretend they no longer exist than to take the time to dig through what may be a mix of years of trauma and abuse, mental illness, poverty, and other complex and difficult factors in each and every person in the system.
So when I think about the WM3, I wonder what two decades of institutionalization does to a young–now no longer so young–mind. Sure, they’re young enough that, under the best circumstances, they have a few more decades to live. But they can’t just leave that experience behind. It doesn’t end here, and the fresh start is a lie.