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On Prisons in America

by Enceno Macy

Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing

He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1965

In a 1982 speech in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sister Anne Montgomery, a legend in the U.S. peace movement, gently proposed that some of us need to go to prison and offer our lives to stop the killings, abolish nuclear weapons, and save the planet.

Today other courageous souls propose yet another reason to go to prison: to crash the system of mass incarceration built on plea bargaining. For such crusaders, prisons are a wake-up call not so much to their inmates as to the society that builds them. Sadly, it’s a wake-up call going unheard.

Sister Anne’s noble suggestion spotlights one of the oldest and least recognized functions of prison. Since before the time of Socrates and Aristotle, prison, death, and banishment have been used by those in power to silence the voices of dissent, criticism, protest, common sense, and often wisdom. From its earliest days, the United States vigorously employed its prisons and police to control public opinion. Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a Vermont congressman was jailed for accusing the Adams administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” (After serving his sentence he returned to his seat in Congress.)

During the First World War, the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 sent offenders to prison for up to 20 years for “speaking disloyally” or voicing any doubt about U.S. involvement in the war. Twenty years after those laws were repealed, the U.S. stripped citizens of their property and businesses and imprisoned them in crude “relocation centers” for the crime of looking Japanese, while conscientious objectors who refused military service were confined in “Civilian Public Service” camps. And just last month, presidential candidate Jill Stein was arrested for providing supplies to protesters blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Holding captives in custody has been common practice for thousands of years, and the U.S. from birth adopted the practice with gusto. An obvious example is the taking of prisoners in war; official statistics compiled at the end of the Civil War show a total of 340,000 prisoners held by both sides. The most pervasive use for prisons, however, is to maintain or enforce social order, to remove from so-called polite society both its critics and its failures. Whether as open slavery or forced labor, whether for punishment or exploitation, whether called relocation centers or Civilian Public Service camps, America has practiced them all. And common to them all has been a universal “out of sight, out of mind” public attitude that prevents oversight or reform.

This is hardly surprising, since our belovéd country began its existence as a prison colony. What is not taught in the average history class is how many early Americans came to this country as prisoners. Britain indulged in international prisoner trade for more than 150 years, between 1717 and 1775, transporting more than 50,000 convicts to America. Many of us are direct descendants of convicted criminals. These were early vagrants uprooted by the industrial revolution who thieved and schemed to stay alive and keep abreast of a fast-growing society full of others just like themselves.

In keeping with its origins, colonial America had more jails than public schools or hospitals, and almost as many as churches and taverns. Most early Americans were poor immigrants who, in sometimes-justified stereotypical fashion, became unruly or less than civil in social situations. By the late 1600s, the basis of our current class system had formed, from the all-powerful masters, i.e., the rich and their next in command, the overseers who ruled over the commoners (third-class citizens). The fourth class comprised servants and convicts, only slightly better than the very lowest, those immersed in perpetual slavery.

Emancipation of slaves after the Civil War in many cases simply shifted blacks from slave quarters to chain gang, as prisons became the de facto means to prevent their integration into white society. From that time to this, prisons have served as a reservoir of racism in America.

“The more laws and order are made prominent,” wrote Lao-tzu nearly 3,000 years ago, “the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

Inevitably, just as perpetual war became a source of corporate profit, a prison industry arose and thrived on a nation’s lust to punish and silence perceived threats. Out of the Great Depression grew a greater and greater use of imprisonment, along with an altered attitude about prisoners and convicted felons. From 1925 to 1939, the nation’s rate of incarceration climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents, correlating directly with the increased percentage of blacks who were being imprisoned. Social attitudes were changing as cities grew and the poor and jobless migrated to urban areas in hopes of employment, a majority of them being of African descent.

At the front end of the industrial revolution, it was easier to warehouse the unfortunate and disgruntled than to keep constant surveillance on potential offenders, not to mention the increase in crime as the desperate turned to any avenues that might provide food for themselves and their families. Adding more crimes, like Prohibition laws, added yet more to the exploding prison population.

During World War II, prison populations decreased, but with the subsequent Cold War, prison warehousing became much more common. When you warehouse convicts and force them into involuntary servitude while depriving them of meaningful work, recreation or mental exercise, resistance will eventually occur. The more convicts you put together, the greater the number who may be willing to rebel.

New York’s Attica Correctional Facility was home to the bloodiest rebellion in U.S. prison history, resulting in the deaths of 43 people (all but one killed during the police action to re-take control) in 1971. And in 1980, 33 deaths were reported during a riot in New Mexico’s State Penitentiary. These violent disturbances were fueled by appalling overcrowding, terrible prison conditions and staff abuse. The result was massive funding for prison programs, especially for prisoner control.

In 1974, the nation’s incarceration rate began to increase at an unprecedented rate, rising within ten years from about 162 to 318 inmates per 100,000 people. By 1995 it had doubled again. At this rate, criminologist Elliott Currie suggested at the time, by 2005 our incarcerated population would double yet again and our national rate of imprisonment would reach 12 times the rate of any other country in the advanced industrial world. Currie wondered whether we might feel “that something was terribly wrong with our society if we had to resort to the confinement of such a large part of our population, especially since we would still suffer far and away the worst levels of serious criminal violence in the developed world.”

Currie’s attitude was mirrored in a 1997 survey that found a “vast majority” of Californians would rather spend money on programs to prevent youth violence than on further incarceration. Four out of five Californians said that our biggest priority should be to “invest in ways to prevent kids from taking wrong turns and ending up in gangs or violence.” Instead, the budget for California’s prison system steadily increased from about three percent of the state’s general fund in 1980 to 11.2 percent for the 2012 fiscal year. Meanwhile, funding for higher education dropped from ten percent of the general fund 30 years ago to 6.6 percent, according to the California Department of Finance.

“How can we afford to spend more on prisons than on higher education in our increasingly competitive, knowledge-based world?” asks Les Leopold.

The real question is not how, but why $7,748 billion of the 2010 U.S. budget was spent on federal correctional activities (doubled from the 2000 budget), while only $3,631 billion went to research and general education (a 17 percent increase from 2000). In that same ten-year period, what also doubled was the amount a student had to pay for a four-year-degree at a state college; by 2010 it cost the average student $55,502 in tuition and fees, board and dorm charges for a four-year degree. Fifty-three percent of students needed loans that would cover barely half of the total cost. With interest rates and the median income around $32,000 a year, it would take many years for the average college graduate to make a dent in such a debt.

Instead of at least equaling the 100 percent increase in prison funding during that period, education and research aid rose less than a quarter of the prison increase. It is therefore more financially sensible to become a correctional officer straight out of high school than to spend four years going in debt to get a college degree.

The huge gap between education and prison funding is the direct result of political exploitation of the drug epidemic to convince the public that the cure is to incarcerate more offenders for lesser offenses for longer periods of time. The “war on drugs” is responsible for extreme increases in the prison population since the 1970s. About 50 percent of people in federal prisons and 20 percent of state prisoners are there for drug-related crimes. The number would be much higher if we included associated crimes committed in pursuit of acquiring drugs and paying drug debts.

Similarly, political scare tactics — “tough on crime” campaigns — brought tougher laws against both violent and property crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. Most criminologists agree that there is little relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment, but the massive funding involved makes it extremely difficult to reverse incarceration rates. Corrections now being a multi-billion-dollar industry, many companies have intense interest in perpetuating and expanding this cash cow:

– The prison-building industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy, raking in profits with little oversight over the safety or integrity of their constructions or locations.

– Many states have outsourced prison administration totally to private prison companies, which make obscene profits by providing as little care as they can get away with, paying personnel minimum wages, feeding inmates condemned or outdated food, providing no rehabilitative services at all, and fostering an atmosphere of unrestrained brutality.

– Both private and state-run prisons have outsourced medical care to appallingly incompetent, unregulated companies that profit greatly by charging the state for substandard, often nonexistent health care.

– Similarly, and also with no oversight, predatory companies and prison administrators enter into kickback arrangements whereby both the companies and the prisons charge prisoners and their families exorbitant rates for phone service, vending machine products, clothing and “company store” commissary items for which inmates have no other source.

– Many prisons in America make huge profits by paying pennies on the dollar to inmates who are forced to work long hours producing goods for sale, but who never see a single penny, as all their pay is ostensibly dedicated to their upkeep; they are in effect and in truth, slave labor.

Common to all state, federal and private prisons is the lack of funds allocated toward rehabilitation and other deterrents to criminal activity. In fact, the opposite is true: prisons and prison policies are geared toward further increases in incarceration and recidivism rates, because that’s where the profits are.

Take a typical prisoner. We’ll call him Jim. He is a 33-year-old eight-time drug offender serving a five-year sentence for his first distribution charge. Previous charges were a variety of small-time, petty thefts, possession of minimal amounts of methamphetamine, and burglary. In and out of county jail and two stints in prison, he has never stayed out of lock-up long enough to establish any kind of positive rhythm to his life. The few times he tried to stay sober, he was turned away from even the most menial jobs. He was fired from a fast-food dispensary after two weeks for poor performance; he was fired from his only other real job for attendance issues and suspicion of stealing.

Jim grew up in a lower-class neighborhood with an absent mother and an abusive drunk for a father. His role models were his drug-dealing brother and the rough-and-tumble crowd that he tagged along with in the streets. After he failed eighth grade for lack of attendance, his brother’s buddies taught him to steal and con to finance his growing marijuana habit. At age 14 he drank too much at a party where a woman twice his age stuck a needle in his arm and gave him his first shot of meth. Two weeks later he was a full-blown addict. After his first stint in juvie and a beating by his father, Jim packed his few things and moved to the streets.

Since he was 15, Jim has spent a total of only 18 months as a free man. He has attempted drug treatments, but after his third try with no follow-up support, he relapsed again and gave up. Now, with multiple felonies, an ex-girlfriend refusing him visits with a child she claims is his, and all his bridges burned, he looks ahead into a bleak, futuristic void. Reflecting now on his many mistakes, in his heart he truly wants to start a new, productive, meaningful life. But he has no job skills, no resumé, and very few options for employment upon his release. Few if any landlords will rent to him because of his felony record. Also, he has never functioned in society as a sober, responsible adult and has no idea how to do so. Jim needs help.

But his state provides no real rehabilitation services. The few treatment programs available do not adequately reconfigure a person’s way of thinking or teach real job skills. They emphasize how bad a drug lifestyle is, which he already knew, and after telling him not to use drugs anymore, send him back on the street with a few phone numbers for charity housing. They do not teach Jim how to function in normal society, how to interact with people who have no experience with the lifestyle he came from and cannot identify with what he is going through or the fact that he is re-learning how to live.

In 1867, two prominent reformers, Enoch C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, reported to the New York State legislature, “There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline.” They recommended that reformation of offenders should be the primary aim of imprisonment. It’s 146 years later, and their voices are still unheard. The few rehabilitation programs available in some states have dwindled to almost none, as they are the first to fall to budget cuts and political “tough on crime” campaigns. How then can we expect someone like Jim to change when the system has little or no interest in helping him integrate into the world? What chance does he have?

Other countries have attempted to give people like Jim a sense of worth and equal standing in society. Amazingly, when they are treated less like animals and accorded basic respect and dignity, offenders act less like criminals and become productive, valued members of the community. A $252 million, 75-acre facility for 252 inmates in Norway offers such an approach to incarceration, with a resulting 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to some 60 percent in the U.S.:

Halden, Norway’s second largest prison, … embodies the guiding principles of the country’s penal system: that repressive prisons do not work and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. … “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”

….The cells rival well-appointed college dorm rooms, with their flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges. Designers chose long vertical windows for the rooms because they let in more sunlight. There are no bars. Every 10 to 12 cells share a living room and kitchen. With their stainless-steel countertops, wraparound sofas and birch-colored coffee tables, they resemble Ikea showrooms.

Halden’s greatest asset, though, may be the strong relationship between staff and inmates. …There’s plenty of enthusiasm for transforming lives. “None of us were forced to work here. We chose to,” says Charlott-Renee Sandvik Clasen, a music teacher in the prison and a member of Halden’s security-guard chorus. “Our goal is to give all the prisoners — we call them our pupils — a meaningful life inside these walls.” It’s warmth like that, not the expensive television sets, that will likely have the most lasting impact.

-From Time Magazine, Norway Builds the World’s Most Humane Prison

A meaningful life. What a concept! What a contrast to America’s race to strip people of their rights and warehouse them in brutal, comfortless compounds with no access to rehabilitative programs, no hope of improving themselves or learning how to live outside the wire.

Both the statistics and the realities of America’s prisons are an urgent message going unheard as the profits roll in, and like the banks, the prison industry becomes too big to fail.

If no other statistics can make you sit up and listen, consider this: more than 90 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons are there because they pleaded guilty — often to crimes they didn’t commit — in order to avoid a trial and a threatened harsher sentence. 

Listen, I am NOT making this up! Ninety-four percent of state prisoners and a staggering 97 percent of federal prisoners accepted plea bargains instead of going to trial. What this means is that more than 90 percent of our entire criminal justice system is no more than a mass production prison-filling scam: prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and judges openly conspire to incarcerate people wholesale, without regard for their right to trial or even the pretense of presumed innocence.

It also means that if even a fraction of people currently being coerced into plea bargains were to refuse and assert their right to trial, the entire court system would collapse:

From the point of view of American University law professor Angela J. Davis … the system of mass industrial incarceration is entirely dependent on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised their constitutional rights, then there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the flood tide of litigation.

-From Truthout, Widespread Use of Plea Bargains Plays Major Role in Mass Incarceration

Without anyone noticing, legislators loyal to corporate donors eagerly criminalize more and more activities to fill the concrete compounds spreading throughout the land. Just as eagerly, the gullible public spouts manufactured rage at the notion of “rewarding” criminals in “country club” prisons replete with luxuries like health care and showers.

Nowhere man, please listen! First of all, something you do legally today may be declared a crime tomorrow — or just as possible, you will be coerced into pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t commit — and you’ll find yourself here, behind the wire. Second, the so-called country club prisons are only for white-collar, white-skinned corporate criminals who strip-mine continents, poison the seas, alter the planet’s climate, and steal trillions of dollars: the bigger the crime, the easier the time. And third, you forget that the rest of us enduring the brunt of official sadism in America’s prisons will some day get out.

If you do not care what happens to us inside the wire, why should we care what happens to you out there?


Lyrics to Nowhere Man

Songwriters: John Lennon and Paul McCartney

He’s a real nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing,
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.
He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, don’t worry,
Take your time, don’t hurry,
Leave it all ’till somebody else
Lends you a hand.
He’s a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody.


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