A week or two ago, I came across this headline in St. Lucian news “Teenage Inmate At Bordelais Correctional Facility gives birth”. Unexpected, jarring and indicative of a number of social issues that are worth discussing. While the trend of mainstream feminism leans towards empowerment and other buzzwords unsupported by action or empathy towards the women who suffer most, there are clear feminist issues within our culture that an article such as this one brings to light…
I’ll preface this by saying that I have no in depth knowledge of Saint Lucia’s legal system or penal system. I know enough to say that we know longer penalize people through hangings. I know enough to know that a goal of intersectional feminism in the Caribbean should involve a critical examination of the prison system. I know that Saint Lucia has a prison; most of what I know about the prison is from rumor and hearsay. In the United States, the prison industrial complex is well documented and renowned for being a method of population control that maintains the authority of the privileged (racially, economic, able bodied etc.) over others. One of the ways this power is maintained is by presuming certain populations inherently deviant or criminal. The United States has a prison population larger than the prison population in China, a country heavily criticized for its strong-arm approach to justice.
Do we have anything similar in the West Indies? What is our punitive system based off of and is it functional? These are questions that I don’t honestly have the answers to. The way our system criminalizes oppressed populations and defines them as deviant is one similarity to the United States. Here I’m referring to the anti-buggery laws which criminalize “gay sex”. Making that specific act illegal clearly targets LGBTQ members of the population, a population that is also marginalized in the United States. While I can’t speak for the racial or class breakdowns in West Indian prisons, I have a hunch that there are very few wealthy white people amongst that population.
Perhaps our prison system isn’t perfect (at best) and at worst, it’s highly dysfunctional and oppressive. But do we have other punitive systems that work better? West Indian cultures are known for having strong, close knit communities. Many of the stories that I’ve heard from my mother and from other Saint Lucian women talk about the way communities rally around women who experience domestic abuse. Sometimes, communities or families will remove the woman from the company of her abuser, or engage in other tactics to exile the abuser and ensure the safety of the woman who has experienced this abuse. While bystander intervention might not always be the best solution, we can look at this as a way communities hold their members accountable. Rather than a state delivering justice, the community decides what is or isn’t acceptable.
That being said, if the values of a community are based on patriarchal, imperialist or racist thinking, self-policing could simply mirror the oppressive policing of the state. So what’s the solution then? Perhaps in order to have a successful shift towards communities self-policing we need more progressive communities. In the absence of that, maybe our prison system in the West Indies isn’t so bad. Perhaps we need reform in place of abolition. While more radical people may call for immediate deconstruction of the prison system, thinking about home, I’m not so certain I believe in that. What do you think? Do you see the prison system as functional? Who is it functional for? Does the imprisonment of deviants and criminals benefit anyone?
Again, these are questions that I don’t believe I have the answers to, at least not yet. But I urge you to think more critically about the prisons in your home country. It’s a topic that’s rarely considered and one that we may have to consider as we push towards social progress.