Imprisoned America

I recently served on my first jury. It was a fascinating and challenging experience, which happened to involve a brawl around the corner from where I live. We as the jury took our job very seriously. When we concluded we did not have enough evidence to convict, I have to say that my relief was not merely limited to the fact that we wouldn’t have to come back the next day in a snow storm.

See, while we were hashing over the finer points of the wording of witnesses’ testimony, I was constantly aware of all the questions we weren’t allowed to ask, especially: If we decide she is guilty, what will happen to her? What benefit will there be to throwing this woman, who had recently beaten a longstanding addiction and was trying to get her life together, back into a punitive justice system that had no resources for, or interest in, understanding the complexities of what happened that night and what might prevent a repeat? Who would it help?

Certainly in the jury room we were not expected to answer that last question with “the private prisons that make their money off imprisoning people and the corporations who benefit from forced ‘employment’ of prisoners at near-slave labor conditions and wages.” But that too was on my mind.

It is becoming, thankfully, a more widely accepted fact that there is something terribly wrong with the incarceration system in this country. You have, I hope, heard the disturbing facts—the United States has the highest total numbers of prisoners, highest percentage of the population imprisoned, and longest sentences. That we have 1 out of 99 people behind bars and 1 out of 31 under some sort of control of the correctional system.

You may also have seen on social media some of the comparisons going around that highlight the wild racial imbalances in how mass incarceration is carried out, such as the comparison of the black homeless mother who left her children in the car to go to a job interview who was given jail time and had her kids removed and the white mother who got high and drove off with her two-month-old on the roof of her car and received only probation.

Who is caught up in the system is only the beginning of a long string of problems. We have a system that casually and frequently perpetrates torture (solitary confinement for more than 15 days in a row counts as torture according to the United Nations) for minor rules infractions; that disenfranchises people after they have served their time and allows for permanent discrimination against them for jobs, housing, and education; that shackles women in labor; that expects people to attend under-funded programs for which no spots exist in order to be considered for parole. And so much more.

And as Naomi Jaffe of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network likes to point out, the kicker is it doesn’t work. Increasing the prison population by 700 percent since 1970 incarceration hasn’t made us safer. It certainly hasn’t reduced drug use. “With that track record, no other program could possibly survive,” notes Jaffe. (So much for “data-driven” and “evidence-based.”) Yet look how much money we are pouring into it.

The more you look at the numbers, the more the system appears to be a method of social control, with a distinctly racist spin, not something designed with public safety in mind. (To get the complete picture, check out Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, plus the locally made film The Throwaways.)

The good news is that over the past 10 years a movement against prison injustice has grown and matured, and we in the Capital Region are host to a dynamic statewide organization, the New York State Prisoner Justice Network, that is doing something activists and advocates in other fields speak of only in reverent whispers or cynical dismissal: bridging the upstate-downstate divide and joining the whole state around a common purpose.

NJSPJN’s annual event is happening in less than two weeks: A march and rally on Monday, May 5, starting at 12:30 PM at the East Capitol Park, with Cornel West delivering the keynote. The lobby portion of the day will focus on supporting the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, but the list of participating organizations and active campaigns they are working on is long, from parole reform, to raising the age of criminal responsibility, to releasing elders.

As mass U.S. incarceration bloats ever larger, it touches the lives of so many people through their own experiences and those of loved ones. But even if you are not aware of a direct connection, if you are concerned about public education, healthy neighborhoods and strengthened cities, economic competitiveness and innovation, public health, mental health care and addiction recovery, and certainly about racial justice, then the May 5 event and its goals are relevant to you.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on April 24, 2014.)

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