created at: 2013-03-26Our prison system is a modern plague.

During the Passover seder, we recount the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. To terrorize the Egyptian Pharoah into freeing the Jewish slaves, God brought a series of 10 plagues upon the Egyptians. After the 10th plague kills firstborn Egyptian sons, Pharoah tells the Jews to flee Egypt.

Preparing for my seder, I kept finding materials asking us to reflect on our “modern plagues.” These lists often included the horrors of the world, such as racism, sexism, and hunger. Such things certainly do plague us today, but they are not analogous to the role of the 10 plagues in the story of Passover. The 10 plagues function as tools—weapons, if you will—that God used to terrorize the Egyptians into ending the oppression of the Jews.

The plagues are not simply bad or simply good. They are double-sided, imperfect if not desperate and destructive measures.

This month, two young men who raped a 16-year-old girl from their high school in Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty by our juvenile justice system. They will both be incarcerated.

That verdict—guilty—is certainly a victory for everyone who believes rape is wrong and sexual violence is a problem. Particularly given our historical context. Particularly given how many victims of sexual violence get blamed for their own suffering. Particularly given how many perpetrators of sexual violence get let off the hook. To have these two young men held accountable is important, not only for the girl they victimized, but for all of us working and yearning for sexual health and sexual justice.

The result of the guilty verdict is that these young men, these perpetrators of sexual violence, will enter the prison system. Prison will not reform these two boys, but perhaps the idea is to terrorize other boys instead; to make them so scared by the threat of going to prison that they won’t commit rape.

The prison system is a modern plague. It is a weapon of terror that we are using in the hopes of achieving liberation.

At the point in the Passover seder when we recount the plagues, we spill a drop of our wine as we name each plague. These drops are intended to symbolize that our celebration of victory is tempered by our recognition that the plagues hurt other people. Do we stop our celebration because our oppressors suffered? No. But neither do we throw around our joy as if only good has occurred. We celebrate, and yet we take a moment to feel sadness for the suffering of others, suffering that is part of our same story.

We need to remember the Egyptians were human too. We cannot dehumanize our oppressors just because they dehumanized us.

When I spilled a drop of my festive wine at my seder for each of the 10 plagues, I spilled an additional drop of wine for our prisons, for these two young men and the countless others whose lives are being hurt by our broken system of supposed-to-be-justice. Not because I care about their football careers. Not because I’m sadder for them than I am for the girl they violated. Rather, because I’m unforgivably furious with those young men for what they did to that young woman—and because I cannot afford to dehumanize them the way they dehumanized her and, by extension, me.

In the story we recount, the plagues are effective. But today, neither God nor the prison system can free us from rape culture and from an epidemic of sexual violence. Only we can do that.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you have any questions for The Debrief related to preventing, understanding, responding to, or surviving sexual violence, email me. Your questions will be confidential, and I will remove any identifying information before I post the column.

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