Twenty-four years later and it’s still a touch surreal to me to think that I was nearly murdered at 18. I’m not sure there are other words for it: My ex-beau had stolen a knife from his steakhouse job and sat outside of my mom’s house until she and my step-father left for work, then broke in to attack me. This was premeditated and thoughtful.
And so when he plea bargained for just shy of four years in prison, it seemed ridiculous to me. I registered that time as a four-year reprieve from when he would try again; I had every expectation that his anger and hurt would only fester in a cell.
Recently, as the reenergized civil rights movement made me aware of the ideas of prison abolition, this was my go-to thought experiment. Surely, what abolitionists are aiming for doesn’t include violent, premeditated acts like this one.
As the thought experiment unwound, though, it started looking differently to me. A few facts:
- My ex-beau was 19 at the time of the attack; our prefrontal cortices – seat of critical decision making – are far from fully developed by that age.
- In his 19 years, he had experienced a horrifying variety of neglect, abuse, rejection, and dehumanization.
- At the time of his arrest, according to the police report, he offered the officer $20 – likely the entirety of his worldly wealth – to kill him.
Pop quiz: Is our legal system about the safety and well-being of our country, or is it really a shiny coat on our basest human eye-for-an-eye instincts?
If it is the former, then throwing my ex in prison was a strategy doomed to failure. He didn’t attack me because he’s a broken, hopeless human. He attacked me because he had reached a place where he could no longer self-medicate away what 19 years of trauma had wrought. What he needed were the very same resources I received so seamlessly: Therapy, anti-depressants, education, and tons of loving support. He needed an opportunity to heal and then to return to society with the ability to make a meaningful living, the opportunity to leave the past in the past.
To be clear: I am the last person to justify his actions that day; they hurt not only me but everyone who loves me. Domestic violence is shockingly prevalent and highlights the dangerous depths of the misogyny that infuses our culture to this day.
Instead, what I’m suggesting here comes from an entirely selfish place, a place where I recognize my safety and the safety of all those who have experienced intimate partner or family violence as integrally tied to the mental and emotional well-being of the perpetrators. There is an inverse relationship between mental/emotional health and violence: The more of one, the less of the other.
We have run this experiment of safety-though-reactive-punishment for long enough to know it doesn’t work.
That, however, brings us to the latter option: That what we, as a country, truly value is not justice but, rather, retribution. If so, mission accomplished by the millions. If so, it’s time for us to stop smearing lipstick on this systemic pig and own up to what we truly are and what this system truly is.