When I’m out talking with voters throughout South Carolina House District 113, I explain the change that I want to bring and why I need their support. Of all the issues that I speak about, one issue stands out, never failing to elicit agreement from voters. That issue is corrections reform.I first became concerned about the state of South Carolina prisons in 2014, when the T.R. et al v. SCDC decision uncovered systemic abuse and neglect of mentally ill inmates. I thought of the Pearl Buck quotation, “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members,” and shuddered. It made me sick to realize that my beloved South Carolina could be so cruel to the mentally ill.
My perspective changed radically when I found myself detained at the Al Cannon Detention Center earlier this year. I experienced first hand the Global Tel*Link phones that rarely work as they should, the bagged lunch sandwiches that few can stomach, and the dirty, semi-public toilets. I met beautiful young women who explained the process of obtaining a bail bond, and found myself lost in a reverie, wondering, “Who taught them about bail bonds? Who decided that was the subject they should learn?” We passed the time by talking about our offenses and connecting over the worries that come with such a place – “How can I get in touch with my family?” or “When am I going to get out of here?”
Despite our camaraderie, and a naïve belief that jail is a great equalizer, my experience was different from that of these beautiful black women. Upon release, I walked out into a world that chose to view my misdeed as a “mistake;” a society that could grant me that privilege while viewing similar wrongs, when done by those who were not white, as “moral failings.” It became abundantly clear to me that there exists two kinds of justice in South Carolina, and in fact, the nation.
The challenges that are put in the path of someone who has spent time in a correctional facility – whether it is one night or one decade, are designed to break down that person, throwing their character into question and discouraging them from any course of action which might bring to light their past transgressions. And white society is prepared to ease those challenges for their own, while magnifying them for persons of color. Look no further than the opioid epidemic, a scourge on largely white communities, and the swift change of heart that it has inspired in how we treat drug offenders.
I believe that if we want to bring meaningful reform to the criminal justice system, we need to wrestle with its inherent racism. Because the heartbreaking truth is that it is not only the incarcerated mentally ill that are suffering from this system. It is the children without role models, the inmates without hope; those out on parole who find themselves just one decision away from becoming a recidivism statistic. Our state finds itself at a critical juncture on criminal justice reform: we can keep the status quo, or we can blaze a new trail of true liberty and justice for all. One thing is certain – for real progress to be realized, we must work tirelessly to identify white privilege and dismantle it in all of its forms.
-Angela Hanyak, South Carolina 113th House District candidate