4 quotes on the American prison system

“You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky (attributed)

Like water running downhill, writing about injustice inexorably brings one to the U.S. penal system and its feeders, the criminal code, the law enforcement process, and our system of courts. American is the land of overcriminalization. That is not to say there are too many criminals. It is to say there are too many laws. There are too many minor infractions that can send a person to jail.

Our rise in prison population has not been cause by a growing wave of rapists, murderers, and robbers. It is partially caused by making minor things illegal, and the punishments for infractions absurd. We lock up the mentally ill in jails where they get little professional help after the medical facilities where they could have gotten the help they need were closed. Municipalities fine the poor for having an expired car tag, fine them for late payment, and jail them when they can pay neither.

It is a sin to fine people who can’t afford the cost of living, then jail them when they can’t afford to pay.

Toss in the hyper-aggression of arrests and convictions of the “war” on drugs with a helping of egregious three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws and you get just what we have: an exploding prison population in a time when major crime is in a multi-decade decline.

Below is a series of quotes from Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons, by Alan Elsner. You can order the book below.

On the prison system:

In describing the U.S. prison system, it is easy to fall back on statistics. The BJC is just one of the many agencies within and outside the government devoted to the purpose of generating literally millions of numbers each year on every aspect of crime and incarceration imaginable. Figures are sliced and diced for insights on race, gender, age and educational attainment. However, what is often missing from the mass of facts and figures is the human cost. Numbers tell us nothing abou the sheer brutality of life for many thousands of people in the U.S. prisons and jails. Statistics alone cannot do justice to the widespread of abuses and violations of human rights that pervade the prison system from top to bottom. It is a system in which hundreds of thousands of men are raped each year; in which racist and neo-Nazi gangs run drugs, gambling and prostitution rings from inside their prison cells, buying and selling weak and vulnerable fellow inmates as sex slaves, while the authorities turn a blind eye. It is a system in which thousands of inmates are subjected to virtual sensory deprivation and social isolation for years on end and often driven crazy, if they were not seriously mentally ill to begin with. It is a system in which large numbers of women are sexually abused and hundreds of thousands of mentally ill individuals get little or no treatment. It is also a world in which corrections officers risk daily assaults, poor health, broken marriages, and premature deaths. (p 14, 15)

On using jails as holding tanks for the mentally ill:

Anyone who has ever spent much time in a U.S. prison or jail soon becomes aware that a high number of inmates have serious mental illnesses. They are present at every level of the system, from county jails and small-town lockups all the way through to death rows. They are the ones who continually holler, the ones who smear feces on the walls and who refuse to follow orders or look after their personal hygiene. They may mutilate themselves, attack guards or attempt suicide. In the past 30 years, while the nation constructed more and more prisons, it also closed most of its mental hospitals. The Los Angeles County Jail became the world’s largest mental hospital with approximately 3,300 seriously ill inmates on any given night.

On mandatory sentencing imposed via the War on Drugs Americans:

[M]andatory sentencing laws meant not only that more Americans were going to prison for nonviolent crimes but that they were staying behind bars for much longer. The average sentence imposed by U.S. District Courts for drugs offenses rose from 54.5 months in 1980 to 75.5 months in 2000. For assault, the figure was 33 months. For fraud, it was 23.5 months.

The distortion created by mandatory sentencing were dramatically illustrated by the case of Weldon Angelos, a 25-year old who, in November 2004, received a 55-year prison sentence for selling two small bags of marijuana to a police informant. Judge Paul G. Cassell of the United States District Court in Salt Lake City said he pronounced the sentence reluctantly but his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum law. He had to give Angelos the 55 years sentence because the young man had a gun in his pocket during the drug transaction. Judge Cassell called the sentence “injust [sic], cruel, and even irrational,” the more so because only two hours earlier he had sentenced another man to only 22 years after he was convicted of beating an elderly women to death with a log. There is no logic and no justice behind such disparities. (p 20, 21)

On the effects and ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs Americans:

With 2 million people behind bars, it is worth asking what America gets for its money…[I]t is hard to argue that the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people for nonviolent drugs possession offenses was cost effective. In the early 1970s, when the war on drugs began, it cost around $110 million a year. President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget proposed $19.2 billion to fight drugs. And the drugs trade continues on unabated.

Joseph McNamara, a former police chief who spent 35 years on the front lines of the drugs war, reached a grim conclusion. “Jailing people because they put certain chemicals into their bloodstream is a gross misuse of police and chemical law. Jailing drug users does not lessen drug use, and incarceration usually destroys the person’s life and does immense harm to that person’s family and neighborhood.” (p 22)

In reference to the preceding paragraph it is worth noting are the millions of Americans who put drugs into their bodies every single day in broad view of law enforcement and the wider public. They are never arrested. They are never charged. They do not lose their jobs, families and homes as a result. We call them “smokers.”

Followers of Jesus are not given the option to ignore the inequities caused by the Prison Industrial Complex. Corrections to injustice should be championed by Christ’s followers who call authorities to account for unjust actions and systems. Accountability isn’t limited to a bunch of guys confessing their sins at Waffle House.

I doubt anyone is calling for the dismantling of prisons altogether. Such an omission does not discount the magnitude of the problem. We do need to seriously explore dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex in which people are jailed so others may profit.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.