Prison for Everybody!
So, what are you in for? What do you mean what do I mean? We’re all in prison for one thing or another — there are many types of confinement. One thing I can tell you from everything I’ve been able to observe. It appears that we’ve all been sentenced to life at hard labor.
The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the prison population. That’s a pretty scary statistic for the land of the free. Crime rates in the U.S. have fluctuated in recent years, but incarceration rates keep going up. There are a couple reasons, one being the failed war on drugs. Michelle Alexander, in her book Incarceration Nation, says that two thirds of the increase is due to drug convictions and reactionary “get tough” policies. We have more people in prison on drug convictions alone than the total prison population in 1980, which was about 400,000. By 1988 the number of inmates was a million, and today there are over 2 ½ million. If you like your irony neat, no chaser, consider the state of New Hampshire. Their motto, “Live free or die,” is emblazoned on their license plates, which are made by inmates at the state prisons.
The other reason is the rise of the private prisons, one of the nation’s fastest growing industries. Since the government pays them for each inmate, it’s just good business to collect as many as you can. Their lobbyists are always pushing for longer sentencing guidelines. A typical example of how this works is the Corrections Corporation of America, and their contract negotiations with the state of Michigan to buy a couple of the state’s prisons. The state had to guarantee 80% occupancy over a period of twenty years. This is a dangerous direction to go, but fortunately some states are dropping the private sector. There have been too many cases of underpaid and poorly trained guards and their abuse of inmates, along with unsanitary and inhumane conditions.
The racial bias with incarceration is appalling, minorities making up the majority of prisoners. In Colorado, 4% of the population is black, but on death row that percentage is 100%. Clearly this is a subject for a separate discussion, but it should be mentioned that mandatory minimums for low-level, non-violent drug offenses is a big part of the problem. On Aug. 12 Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to this practice, but it only applies to federal cases, and not the states. Still, it’s a promising sign. 40% of U.S. prisons are overcrowded.
There are many other kinds of prisons. Western civilization is really keen on confinement and enclosure, from fencing in our private lands and property to locking ourselves inside our homes, protected by private security systems and guns. Poverty is a prison. Fifty years ago there was more opportunity to rise out of poverty by hard work and initiative, but today there’s far less social mobility. More than ever, if you’re born poor, you’ll probably die that way. It’s the same in the inner cities, Appalachia, or Native American reservations. In a very weak job market, many Americans are imprisoned in jobs they hate, that pay low wages with little or no benefits. That may explain why a recent Pew Research poll showed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. This socio-economic prison doesn’t just affect the poor. Most of that 99% that Occupy Wall Street talked about are one paycheck, or one medical emergency, from poverty, themselves. For the 1%, they live in gated communities behind walls and security guards, with bars on their windows. Nobody gets away; we’re all in jail.
A very disturbing problem is the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Public schools 150 years ago were partially to prepare students for manufacturing jobs, so they were regimented similarly, the recess bell prefiguring the coffee break. With the increase of school shootings and zero tolerance policies, they became more like prisons, with security guards or police, metal detectors, and students often being arrested for the most menial of offenses. Now they have a criminal record, and they aren’t even in high school yet. One judge in Pennsylvania is serving his own sentence for taking kickbacks from a private prison corporation to increase incarceration of middle school students.
It’s bad enough to confine ourselves, but we have to jail the animals as well. Zoos, wildlife preserves, circuses, are all a life sentence for them. I think it’s disgraceful that magnificent animals like killer whales are penned up in tiny enclosures, and made to do tricks for fat kids eating cotton candy. Other animals are even less fortunate, raised in cages and subjected to a short lifetime of unspeakable torture in laboratories. We have no more right to do this than the Nazis did to experiment on Jews. I don’t care how many babies might be saved. It’s like the argument over torture — it doesn’t matter if it works or not, it’s still wrong.
Many Americans are imprisoned by their jobs, at least those lucky enough to have a job. They don’t dare quit, no matter how badly they’re treated or how lousy the pay. They may not be able to find another job, so they have to remain.
With the rise of corporate power and influence in Congress, along with the vast surveillance of all Americans since 9/11, democracy itself has been locked up, and in solitary confinement. It’s on suicide watch, I think. Privacy is on death row right now — oh, I’m just being told it has been executed, by the electronic chair.
The hardest prisons to escape from are the ones we construct for ourselves. Most of us are held captive by either religious dogmas or our political beliefs. We all have a confirmation bias naturally built in; we tend to gravitate towards ideas that confirm our belief structure. Being more open-minded can help to tear down the walls, but that’s easier said than done. How do we break free? Who am I, Gandhi? For those of us a little less divine, the best we can do is look for ways out, an exit strategy. First, though, we have to become aware of the bars.
In the meantime, I’m thinking about a jailbreak. We need to find a way to bust democracy out of prison.
“He who does not move does not notice his chains.” — Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919), German socialist agitator.