Prison reform advocate talks justice system

August 24, 2022

Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona, has been advocating for decades to reinvent and improve the criminal justice system.

On September 19, she will give a talk titled “Creating Safety Outside of the Punishment System,” which is the second of three webinars in the 18th Annual Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series hosted by the School of Social Transformation at Arizona. Arizona State University. .

Caroline Isaacs, Executive Director of Just Communities Arizona, is a guest speaker at the 18th Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series.
Download Full Image

AFTER: Reproductive rights, prison reform and equal voting take center stage in ASU lecture series

The school sat down with Isaacs to talk about prison abuse, the criminalization of behaviors and ways the community can help reform these systems.

Question: Please introduce yourself; where do you come from ?

Answer: My name is Caroline Isaacs, I’m from northeastern Pennsylvania, a small town called Trucksville.

Q: What have you learned in your professional or academic career that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The most important lesson – one I constantly relearn – is about the importance and power of human relationships. It’s easy to get bogged down in one point of view or one ideology and start seeing people as allies or adversaries. We also make the mistake of thinking that facts and data drive people to change their behavior. The extreme isolation of our culture, combined with COVID and the polarization of political issues, makes it very difficult to relate to people as human beings. But when we can do it, it’s transformational. One of our most overlooked basic needs is connection and belonging, and it’s what we all have in common.

Q: What kinds of social issues do you work on? Why do you think they are important?

A: For the past 25 years, I have dedicated myself to rethinking and reforming what we mistakenly call the “criminal justice system.” The reality is that we have a punishment system. It is not designed to produce security or justice, but for the social control of people and groups whom those in power find threatening, distasteful or useful (i.e. surplus labor ). This system is at the crossroads of virtually every social problem – poverty, violence, mental health issues, addictions, racism, and inequality of almost every kind. The default response is to criminalize behaviors we don’t like, fear or understand. This work is important because criminalization and punishment are not solutions to these problems and have the effect of exacerbating them. The punishment system drains resources, including people, away from communities and locks them into a perpetual cycle of failure. It impacts us all.

Q: Why do you think these problems exist?

A: First, and obviously, because of the institutionalization of racism and economic inequality in all government structures. But it also has its roots in our toxic culture of extreme individualism and the normalization of violence to solve problems. Complete disregard for collective or social responsibility for creating conditions that foster poverty, substance use, behavioral health problems and other root causes of criminalized behavior means that the default is to see these behaviors as inherent flaws in the person, which makes them “less than” and therefore disposable. This criminal label and the underlying assumption of their behavior as proof of a personal deficit then justifies all kinds of abusive treatment and relieves society of any responsibility to help the person. Our culture equates justice with retribution. We hurt people who hurt people, “an eye for an eye”. Increasingly, we are also hurting people who have hurt no one but themselves. This state violence is believed to keep people on the straight and narrow for fear of the harsh consequences of their actions, which reveals a complete misunderstanding of why people break the law.

Q: How did you get involved in this type of work? What motivates you to keep working for social change?

A: When I moved to Arizona in 1995, I interned for a year with the American Friends Service Committee. At the time, one of their big projects was the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which uses volunteers to run conflict resolution and communication skills workshops in prisons and in the community. I was told to attend one of these workshops over a weekend at the Tucson Federal Men’s Medium Security Penitentiary. I was terrified – a young woman entering a prison to hang out with a group of incarcerated men for three days! I was absolutely blown away by the men I met there – some of the brightest, funniest, insightful and funniest people I have ever met. They taught me what prisons really are and do, and who gets caught up in that system. It lit a fire for me – it was the single social justice issue that angered me the most. The incredible waste of these precious lives and the fallout on their families and communities is nothing short of staggering. I continue to believe that if we can face up to what is broken in our system of punishment, we can learn a new way to serve people’s needs and our collective well-being.

Q: What do you like most about this job?

A: I love strategic thinking – tackling complex issues and having the ability to be creative in thinking about ways to approach change. I also love being able to work with so many amazing people, learn their strengths, build community, and dream together.

Q: What are some practical steps people can take to address the justice issues you work on in the community?

A: Join our mailing list at Elections matter: State legislators determine criminal sentencing laws and have the power to reform them. Prosecutors are elected at the county level. Judges are also elected in Arizona. But these are races that are largely ignored. Take the time to learn about the record of the people who are running and do what you can as a voter to let them know that you want to see change.

On a personal level, start asking yourself how individualism and the normalization of punishment manifests itself in your own life. If someone offends you, hurts your feelings, or violates your boundaries, how do you react? Do you push them away or reject them, assuming their motives were deliberately harmful? Or will you contact them, ask them why they did this, help them understand the impact of their actions, and give them the opportunity to make amends? Think about what makes you feel “safe”. There is a good chance that his relationships with other people will not be punished by the government.

Now in its 18th year, the Seeking Justice in Arizona fall lecture series brings together experts from our local communities to discuss critical national issues in the context of Arizona. Each lecture is followed by a Q&A session and time to interact informally with the speaker. These events are free and open to the public and take place virtually on Zoom from 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Video recordings will be available on YouTube after each event.

Visit for more information. Register here.