Conflicting Feelings: On Steubenville, Rape Culture, and Incarceration of Black Men

When I opened up the news earlier this week, I couldn’t believe my eyes:

Steubenville High School Rapist Released

My immediate reaction was fury.

10 months!?  Convicted of rape, and he served 10 MONTHS!?

And then I saw the statement from his lawyer:

“The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’lik [Richmond] and his extended family . . . At sixteen years old, Ma’lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagination for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life.”

Not once in the statement was the victim, her trauma, or her family mentioned.  The victim, clearly, was Ma’lik, and this was just an “unfortunate set of circumstances,” not a series of deliberate choices to hurt another human being.

And then I read some of the comments sections.  Don’t ask me why I chose to read the comments on a piece about sexual violence, but I did.

They ranged from blaming the survivor for her own rape to wishing prison rape (often in a “hilarious, joking,” sort of way) on Richmond.

Literally nothing about this story left me feeling hopeful or good or like justice had been served.  So I took some time away from this story.  I didn’t click any links relating to Steubenville or Richmond at all.

But I couldn’t turn off my brain, and over the last few days, some nuance has crept into my thoughts.

And now I find myself with two conflicting feelings:

  1. In a society where too few who commit sexual assault are held accountable for their actions, I want to see him serve his term.
  2. But in a society where far too many young, Black men are locked up (and are more likely to be locked up for committing the same crimes as White men), I have to admit that seeing one less in jail felt good.

Even as I write this, I am afraid to admit the second one.  After all, I don’t want to be labeled and lambasted for being a “rape apologist” or accused of saying that a Black rapist shouldn’t serve time simply because he’s Black.  After all, the internet is a place of over-simplification, and over-simplification doesn’t advance dialogue.

So as I think through those feelings, I have to ask myself why I want to see him serve his term and why it felt important to see a young Black man free of prison.

Punishment vs Rehabilitation

When I heard that Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted and sentenced to prison for rape, I cheered.  I cheered because far too often, men who commit this heinous crime walk free, and many in the town where they live did everything they could to make sure these young men were not held accountable for their actions.

But was I also cheering because I wanted to see them punished?  Most definitely.  And they deserved punishment.  But unfortunately, our criminal “justice” system rarely goes even a single step beyond punishment.  Rehabilitation is almost never considered, and worse, when people are released from prison (no matter their crime), they are unlikely to be able to access the resources they need to avoid going back to prison.

Hence my conflicted feelings.

I wonder whether Richmond could possibly have come to understand his crime considering his short jail term and the sentiment of his lawyer that established Richmond as the victim.  Yet I also wonder what kind of access to rehabilitation and counseling Richmond actually had in youth criminal detention.

As noted in this Slate piece by Irin Carmon (ignore the terrible title and focus on the point),

Rehabilitation, of course, is one of only three separate functions that intervening in sexual offenses serves, explains Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and director of research at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. There is “community protection,” identifying predators and keeping those who might re-offend away from potential victims. There is “accountability,” which sends a message as to what is and isn’t acceptable in a community. And then there is rehabilitation, on which researchers are quite optimistic — at least when it comes to juveniles.

“Twenty years ago people lumped juveniles and adults together, and had this idea that if a kid committed a sex offense, he was on this immovable trajectory that was going to head towards more and more sexual deviancy and a lifetime of predation,” says Letourneau. “But that just isn’t the case.”

More and more research indicates that rehabilitation of sex offenders, particular young sex offenders, is possible!  And as Katie McDonough puts it, “Consensus in the juvenile justice and medical communities holds that young people should be given counseling, not hard time, for crimes they commit.”

Perhaps by releasing Richmond early, the state has failed in the “community protection” and “accountability” aspects of “intervening in sexual offenses,” but what of the third aspect, rehabilitation? While his sentence mandated counseling, did Richmond receive competent rehabilitation services?  And was his progress in those services part of his release?

It’s unclear.

Locking Up Black Men

But the lack of rehabilitation in our “justice” system, highlighted well in The New Jim Crow, is one of the many reasons why I generally do not cheer when I see that someone’s going to be locked up in our society.  And the other reasons that I don’t cheer are the very root of my conflicted feelings.

Our prison system does little more than produce more crime while disproportionately destroying the lives of the poor and people of Color.

When 1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, a strong plurality for non-violent drug offenses, and considering the racial disproportionality of sentencing in the U.S., seeing a young Black man who could be reformed gave me pause.

I felt some hope for Ma’lik Richmond.  Maybe I’m not supposed to, as he is a rapist, and statistically, that tells us that he will rape again.  But I felt some hope.

After all, if there is a chance that one less Black man will be caught up for a lifetime in our racist criminal justice system, could that not be a good thing?

Nuanced Complexity

And so I wrestle.  I wrestle with the desire to see someone punished, even when I don’t believe our criminal justice system should focus on punishment.  I wrestle with my hope that Richmond received counseling to help him change for the better, though I know our system does a terrible job at that.  And I wrestle with wanting simultaneously to see one less young Black man locked up while wanting to ensure justice for a young woman who was assaulted.

I wrestle.

And I reflect.

Because I know there are no easy answers, but nuance and complexity in my feelings are far more conducive to my growth than than the certainty I know I don’t feel.

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3 thoughts on “Conflicting Feelings: On Steubenville, Rape Culture, and Incarceration of Black Men

  1. I think Justice can never be done for a woman after such a situation. At best, it is a kind of revenge but that too misses the mark. I think the change in the black community has to be an internal thing and to reassert viability. That and stop cops being treating all suspects and particularly blacks from the presumption of being guilty. After that kind of conditioning in the inner the situation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    But raping women is not negotiable. Even the treatment of adult sex offenders falls way short of what is needed. Just like fluoride in toothpaste, we have to educated all segments of society and we need to defang cops. Those individuals takes our their own criminal tendencies on people suspected of something.

  2. As someone FROM Steubenville, I’ve been frustrated with the media coverage which has failed to mention the extreme poverty of the area and it’s connection to violence. When the steel mills shut down in the 1980’s (when I was in high school) the rate of rape, incest, assault, and domestic violence went through the roof and didn’t go down. The cultural context further complicates this already awful situation.

    Luckily, the lawyer’s statement and the media coverage do not represent Ma’lik’s actual perspective, thoughts, feelings, or story. Only Ma’lik gets to do that and we can hope for good things from him. Ten months is a long time for a 16 year old and longer is not going to make him less likely to rape, just more likely to have other problems and it certainly doesn’t help any of the young women rebuild their lives more effectively. I hope that Ma’lik and his family benefit from this relative kindness and that the women he hurt have the love and support to understand that the appalling things said are no indication of their worth.

    What a mess! Thanks for taking the time to pick it apart publicly with great sensitivity.

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