[Content Note: Sexual violence; misogynoir; carcerality; police brutality.]
In December, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was standing trial on charges that he sexually assaulted 13 black women, was found guilty on 18 of 36 charges: Four counts of first-degree rape, one count of second-degree rape, six counts of sexual battery, four counts of forcible sodomy, and three counts of procuring lewd acts. The jury recommended "a total of 263 years in prison."
[CN: Video may autoplay at link] Yesterday, District Judge Timothy Henderson agreed with their recommendation and sentenced Holtzclaw to 263 years, with the sentences to be served consecutively. Henderson also denied Holtzclaw's request for an appeal bond, so he will have to appeal the verdict from prison.
I heard about the sentencing yesterday afternoon, but I waited to write about it until I had some time to sit with it.
I am both an anti-rape advocate and a prison abolitionist. And this case, this sentence, challenges my principles.
On the one hand, I am very happy indeed that his victims (at least some of them, because he was acquitted on some counts) were believed and that he was held accountable for his profound abuse. Especially given the particulars of this case: A white cop, who preyed on black women. It is important that his predation and harm has been recognized, that the survivors have been heard and their trauma acknowledged, that he has been stopped.
On the other hand, I am well aware that he is being sent into a prison system where he is very likely to be sexually assaulted himself. Or killed. Or held in isolation for the rest of his life, which is tantamount to subjecting him to torture under the auspices of protecting him.
I have said dozens of times in this space that more violence is not a solution to violence. And I believe that. Even in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw.
Mariame Kaba, aka Prison Culture, whose work has been an invaluable part of my education and transformation into a prison abolitionist, wrote last night (which I am sharing with her permission): "Sentencing ANYONE for ANYTHING to 263 years in a cage exposes the actual purpose of prison as punishment (nothing more) and revenge. Will any human being live for 200 years?"
That strongly resonates with my immediate response upon reading of the sentence: "What is the point, really the point, of a 200+ year sentence? But what else is there to do with him?"
The point, as Mariame correctly observes, is punishment and revenge.
Is punishment and revenge justice? Is it even an effective strategy to dismantle the rape culture and eradicate rape?
The answer is no, on both counts.
But we have no alternatives at the moment. All we have is cages.
And we justify those cages by saying that Holtzclaw is remorseless. There's nothing to do with a remorseless predator but lock him up and throw away the key.
But what if his remorselessness is a function of his having been cloistered in a community, a profession, a culture in which remorse is not an expectation? What if even Holtzclaw would experience and express remorse if anyone around him expected and facilitated the empathy he lacks?
What if the fact that we can't, or won't, envision anything but a cage as a prison entrenches that remorselessness?
We have created prisons of which dehumanization is a central feature, where emotional and psychological rehabilitation isn't on offer, and then use evidence of continued remorselessness as a justification for that very dehumanization and neglect.
And we pretend there is no other way. But there are other models. Prisons that don't look like prisons, as we expect them to look. And don't function like prisons, as we expect them to function. And to which no one is sentenced for 263 years.
I have no sympathy for Daniel Holtzclaw. None. But it is in a case like this that we must pause and consider what we are prioritizing, a case where it is so, so easy to hear a sentence of 263 years and think, "Take that, you fucker!" I feel that. A part of me feels that. That is a part of me that doesn't long for justice, but revenge.
I don't want to be a person who longs for revenge.
Longing for revenge is what has created the corrupt, violent, dehumanizing prison system we have now. Has obliterated visions of alternatives that are truly just.
I want real justice for the women he victimized. I take up space in solidarity with them, and I certainly respect and understand that they may might be celebrating this sentence. They aren't obliged to feel any other way. It is the closest thing in the US there is to justice right now. There are no alternatives for accountability besides cages.
There never will be, if we don't imagine them and advocate for alternatives, even and especially when it is hard.
I am glad that Holtzclaw was held accountable. I am not glad he was sentenced to 263 years in prison. I am angry that the latter is the only option offered for the former. I ache that we have no finer solutions to heinous interpersonal violence than state violence.
And I am impatient for change.