The Briar Philosopher - The Least of These

by Carmen Abner - Co-Editor

The Least of These

I have been thinking about writing this particular column since I began this journey of being handed back the reins of responsibility here at the paper. One of the things I do every week is visit the website of the Jackson County Detention Center and download all the recent inmates. We publish the mugshots every week as you know if you’re a regular reader of this paper. This was not something we did when I was first in charge. It was done by previous managers but I kind of let it slide. When James came on board he started it up again and readers responded favorably so I will continue the practice this time. But I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t like it. Every Monday, I log on the the Detention Center site and every Monday I cry when I see the faces of those who have erred to the point that they have been incarcerated. My heart breaks for them and for their families and loved ones. So many of them look so broken and alone, so lost and afraid, so forlorn and deeply sad.

When we tell you their story, as is often the case, we are only giving you a tiny bit of who they are and what their life has been. When we publish their picture it is just a snapshot of a moment. It doesn’t in anyway tell you any more about them, how they came to be who they are at that moment or where and who they may be in the future. But there they are, stuck in time in our minds; fallen, broken, open to pity, anger, fear and almost always, judgement.

Now, I am not in anyway saying they don’t necessarily deserve to be where they are when that camera snaps that moment. They have broken the law and they must face the consequences of their own actions. I’m very committed to the idea of personal responsibility. But that doesn’t stop my heart from feeling compassion for them. There are so many wrong turns that people can take in this life. No child ever dreamed of being a drug addict or a thief, or any of the other things that can land one in custody. No child ever thought, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go to jail.” And they were all children once. We have no way of knowing what happened to lead them down the wrong path but we can guess, given the circumstances of so many in this county, what some of the contributing factors might have been. There is so much poverty, so much despair, so much generational addiction, so many broken homes and families torn apart. Children in such circumstances who are often taught self respect, personal responsibility, dignity; children who never know a day’s peace, who never hear that they are wonderful and beautiful and full of potential, such children often stand no chance of breaking free from cycles in which they have been trapped by circumstances that were completely beyond their control. They are not given positive coping mechanisms, or encouragement, or support or a shoulder to cry on when life’s inevitable sorrow comes knocking at the door. So, when they finally manage to grow up, against the odds, they often have no idea how to navigate what it can be to be an adult and they fall into the pitfalls that are so numerous around them.

No, none of that excuses their actions but sometimes it explains them and helps us understand. With understanding comes compassion and, I believe, with compassion comes a determination to address some of those underlying issues and help them find their way back to some of the potential that got lost along the way.

It bothers me that all we often see of them is that moment, that mistake, that fall and it bothers me that we judge them solely on that tiny sliver we see in the paper. I can almost hear some of them crying out from that mugshot, “This is not who I am. Please see that. This is not who I want to be.”

We are quick to judge in this culture, in this county, in this world, even though we were commanded not to do so. As a child I knew the force of such judgement. It was not unusual for the eyes that fell on my rag tag little self back then to be the eyes of judgment. “Just another one of those dirty Abner kids.” “She’ll never amount to anything.” “Look at her clothes, her hair, her parents.” It is hard to stand against such things and decide they have no effect on you. If one is told over and over that they are worthless, they learn that they have no worth. If one is told over and over again that they are “bad”, bad is often what they will become. I was fortunate enough to have a deeply stubborn streak that allowed me to define myself and the encouragement of a mother who told me never to listen to the judgment of others but to my own inner potential. There were also teachers and community members who saw beyond my poor estate.

None of those people who judged me as a child would have believed I would one day grow up to be the General Manger and Editor of the Jackson County Sun, but here I am.

I don’t ask that we cease to incarcerate those who have broken the law. I only ask that we see them as human beings still and that we open our hearts to the possibility that they are so much more than those mugshots and headlines. Remember that “there but for the grace go we all.”

Some turn, some tragedy, some circumstance beyond our control could easily have changed our path and landed us right there beside them. We don’t like to believe that because we like to believe we are somehow superior to them and would never make the same decisions. We are wrong. Life can do things to you that break you to the point you can’t put yourself back together all by yourself. If we learn again to see them as pieces of ourselves, as part of our community, maybe in some way we can learn to help them find some of the lost pieces of themselves and reclaim their dignity. I myself and trying to find a way to do that. I hope that in coming weeks I can share with you some success strories to “unstick” some of them from that mugshot and introduce you to who they can be beyond that moment in time.

Opinions expressed on the columns page are not necessarily those of the Jackson County Sun, its Editors, Owners or Publishers.