Facing Down Injustice… A Season of Reckoning.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” ~Nelson Mandela
CRIME AND INCARCERATION
In the interest of the maintenance of law and order, civil society creates appropriate mechanisms by which it holds those who violate the strictures of the social order accountable. Our courts along with the prison system are a vital part of this process. Persons found guilty of breaking the law often find themselves at the mercy of the Court and it’s various agents. Our guiding principle at judgement is that “the punishment should fit the crime”. In his inauguration speech President George W Bush stated that: ‘A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.’ This is a standard worthy of our remembrance as we reflect on our perceptions of those who find themselves at the mercy of our courts, since our collective perceptions are operational in our eventual treatment of them.
Incarceration is a necessary part of the Justice system. Our society, through its courts, sometimes finds it absolutely necessary to imprison people…some for the rest of their lives. Because of the absolutely critical consequences of sentencing people to serve time in prison, we have a serious responsibility to make sure that our court system functions justly. Avoiding cruel and unusual punishment is a sacred duty that we must be vigilant in upholding. While we set out to appropriately punish offenders for their crimes, we have a responsibility to make sure that we make every effort to rehabilitate those who can be rehabilitated. Most important of all, we have a responsibility to put in place every safeguard against unjust imprisonment. This is a most crucial responsibility as we set out to guarantee the freedom that is idealized in our most celebrated creed.
Not very long ago I worked as a nurse in a couple of our prisons in Pennsylvania. It was, to say the least, one of the most depressing vocational experiences I have ever had. I can state without hesitation that these places are the most dis-spiriting, the most de-humanizing environments that I have ever been in. It is a blatant untruth to speak of these places as experiences in rehabilitation. Anyone who has ever been in one of these facilities will not escape the impression that the culture of our prisons is in essence self-perpetuating. The prison experience as it is results for the most part not in a “correctional” outcome, but in the kind of broken person who will keep going back.
Human Rights Watch in a report in December 2013 has this to say about prison and detention conditions in the USA:
One of the foundational underpinnings of our ever-evolving civility is a belief in the inherent dignity of every person. It is this belief that guides our morality. It is what rationalizes our prohibition against discrimination in all its forms. A belief in the inherent dignity of the human person prohibits discrimination based on age, or gender, or race, or national origin. It is what has led us to insist on treating persons with disabilities as deserving of the right to life and liberty, and all the facilities that go with those rights. It is what makes us legislate against cruel and unusual punishment for those who violate the laws of our society, no matter how gross their transgressions. And so we must ask why it is that we are creating the conditions described by Human Rights Watch. A cursory look at the evidence may in fact lead one to conclusions that are not hopeful for our society.
In an economic culture that is intent on culling a profit out of every human circumstance, prisons are designed to be necessarily self-perpetuating. The idea is to keep themselves optimally occupied in order to maximize profits for those who now invest in them. Yes, prisons have become business opportunities. We will come back to this point later. Some people speak of prisoners as “animals” and prisons are designed to make sure they remain as such. In truth I have come to believe that the recidivism that we complain so much about is in fact a desired outcome of those who operate these dens of human degradation.
Some of us argue that prisoners are the “scum of the earth”, and that they deserve to be treated with the flagrant inhumanity we believe they “deserve”. Such persons are convinced that the focus of confinement should be on punishment, and thus the meaner the conditions of their confinement the better. Rehabilitation, they say, is a luxury not to be wasted on such “scum”. Well I am no neophyte. Neither am I a “bleeding heart” in denial about, or ignorant of the realities of the human condition.
I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica where the proliferation of “garrison communities” has to this day engendered a sense of persistent insecurity amongst the people who inhabit them. These are places where ruthless politicians exploit the survival instincts of their henchmen/henchwomen in pursuit of their electoral goals. These “communities” suffer some of the highest murder rates in the world. The devaluation of life in these circumstances has led to the kind of social destitution in and around them that is described in Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” :
“Welcome to Jamdown, poor people a dead at random
Political violence, can’t done!
Pure ghost and phantom,
The youth dem get blind by stardom… … …
To see the sufferation sicken me
Them suit no fit me, to win election them trick we
Den them don’t do nuttin at all”
I lived my teenage years in the environment that Damian Marley so aptly describes in his lyrical exposition of the facts of life in these violence disposed ghettos. By the time I was 21 years old, many of the boys I had gone to elementary and secondary/high school with were either dead or in jail. They had become perpetuators or victims, all equally susceptible to the destructive wrath of the knives and bullets of the criminal/political tribalism around them.
I have been robbed, and shot at. I have had loved ones raped and murdered. I have been called a “slave” for believing in the virtues of hard work by those who chose to be “thugs”. I have been caught up in curfews where a policeman told me to “run” so I would become a target of his trigger-happy… murderous inclination. I believe am alive today because something greater than the fear in me made me stand firm against this prevalent inhumanity. Scary as it was, I learned to walk through it. I know about the corrupt influence of politicians, and cops, and preachers…
There are evil people in the world, and no amount of naïveté or pseudo-liberal idealism will, or can change that reality. I make no excuses for those who choose to cultivate their depravity with excuses about being poor or disadvantaged. I grew up among the poor and disadvantaged, and I know that decency and industry was as much a part of our experience and aspirations as it may have been among some of those experiencing the abundance that we longed for. I also know that we did not have the quality education and training facilities around us that the privileged were exposed to. Neither did we have the resources to bribe the police and politicians and other servants of the status quo to gain access to the advantages that the monied around us had.
Despite the deleterious influences around me I have always seen my life in terms of making a positive difference in my world. By the time I was 18 years old I had boiled down my vocational choices after high school to either law enforcement or the priesthood. I chose the church because I was convinced I would be no good at taking orders. After four years of seminary I found myself in a vocational crisis that led me to the couch of a renowned psychoanalyst who, after many sessions, concluded that my personality was most suited to work in a prison. I left her office laughing, I don’t know why… I remember that I was very sad.
The socio/cultural challenges we face are are at times dire. There are people who for various reasons do not share civil society’s qualms about “screwing-up” the moral/social/economic order. Yes, there are elements out to create havoc and destruction who are possessed of a seemingly unfathomable anti-social black hole. They will not be redeemed…try as hard as we could. Despite our best efforts, society will end up having to protect itself from certain hell-raisers. Our society needs to be protected from sociopaths and homicidal maniacs. On that we can all agree. There is no doubt that there should be special places for such characters.
The factors contributing to criminal behavior are many, some more complex than others. There is no lack of research in this subject. Our social scientists have accumulated a vast body of work on the subject. Without ignoring the many factors observed by those who look at the phenomenon of criminal behavior, the criminal justice system must function to prosecute those who violate law and determine what just punishment should be meted out.
PRISONER or CAPTIVE
Definition of a prisoner: a person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial.
Definition of a captive: a person who is enslaved or dominated or imprisoned.
One major challenge of the court system and those who direct its operation is to make judgements about the crimes for which a person should be incarcerated. Another equally challenging responsibility of the system of Justice is to guard against the unjust imprisonment of people. It is the latter of these two concerns that is my main focus here..
It is a fact that the justice system has been in a number of circumstances, perverted to serve the economic interests of corrupt lawyers and judges. It is also a fact that sentencing has become a vehicle for filling the jails with people who are seen as nothing more than cogs in the wheel of an “industry” driven by a for profit motive. In light of these facts we must ask serious questions about the motivations behind the sentences handed down by some of our judges.
Are we locking away people in our prisons who should be more justly and appropriately placed in programs focused on social, medical, and psychological rehabilitation? Furthermore, are we committing a greater harm by placing them at the mercy of those whose goal is to make a profit at the expense of the life of the socially and economically disadvantaged? Are many of those we have now lumped in as “prisoners” more appropriately captives of an essentially unjust system?
Consider the following from an article by Kate Henderson, and published in Liberty Voice in December 2013.
Convictions he made between the years of 2003 to 2004 have all been overturned, amounting to over 4,000 cases. He consistently violated the constitutional rights of youngsters, including their right to have legal counsel and their right to enter an intelligent plea. One of the youngest persons he passed sentence on was only ten years old. His sentencing was rapid, and invariably severe. He needed to keep that prison packed with kids. Non-violent, insignificant and even nonsensical “crime” was penalised the same way.”
There is reason to believe that Ciaverella is not alone in this “enterprise”. The proverbial “love of money” is what drives the judicial indiscretion of many of our judges. That, combined with their political ambitions, has created a slippery slope by way of which we have managed to create a level of incarceration not seen anywhere else in the world. The “land of the free” has become the home of the imprisoned. How could this be? What accounts for this existential contradiction?
THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
Since the 1970s the prison population in the USA has grown by leaps and bounds. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies:
“No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States at 716 per 100,000 people”.
This fact stands out in light of our claim to being the “beacon of Freedom”. It is necessary that we ask why… Why do we lock away our people at such an outrageous rate? Unsurprisingly the answer to this question may lie at the very heart of our socio-economic ideal. At the very core of this issue is a version of capitalism …expressed as unbridled, rapacious greed.
Vicky Pelaez writes the following in an article titled “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” :
Addressing the same issue, Andy Kroll writes the following in an article titled “This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall” published in Mother Jones magazine, Sept 2013:
Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.”
SET THE CAPTIVES FREE!
Stop for a moment and let that sink in… The prison industrial complex wants the jails full even if crimes numbers are in decline. What are the implications of this demand for the way our justice system operates? It is time for a critical examination of the process of what is blatantly an “injustice system”. Can a society that ignores this fact escape its consequences? When our aspiring candidates for political office talk about being “hard on crime”, let us loudly interrupt them and ask them how much money they are getting from this prison industrial complex. Are they and the judges we elect the compliant cronies of the system of injustice which now exists to target the poor and underprivileged in our communities…especially our communities of color? Paul Waldman writing in The American Prospect observes the following:
In addition to the disproportionate number of persons of color in our jails, it is also a fact that the US imprisons more women than any other country. This raises other disturbing questions about the political culture being perpetuated here. Think for a moment about the history of the disenfranchisement of women and minorities in this country’s politics. In a democracy such as ours one may ask… in fact must ask… who benefits from the disenfranchisement of this part of the potential electorate which is disproportionately affected by our present policies on incarceration? Is the excessive incarceration of women and people of color a way of thwarting the process of democratization? Does it tilt the balance of electoral power in favor of the same influences that historically wanted exactly that state of affairs? These are questions worthy of further examination. Is this in fact jerrimandering via incarceration?
Let us be very clear about what is at stake here. There are inescapable consequences of this kind of injustice. The institutions in our communities must begin to take this issue to heart. We must do more than is being done to conscientize our fellow citizens about this problem.The proliferation of “prison ministries” focusing on saving the proverbial “soul” is unlikely to “change the hearts” of the captives in this new system of slavery. The prisoners are more aware than the preachers that the dichotomy assumed between their physical and spiritual needs is a false one. The “ship” called “Jesus” is not being employed to carry these people away from the degradation and misery and disenfranchisement created by a system of greed and it’s corrupted agents. The true “gospel of salvation” that is appropriate in this circumstance is predicated in the powerful, sometimes controversial message of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
When Yeshua (Jesus) adapted this passage to the goals of his own ministry in Nazareth, the place where he grew up, those representing the status quo were so enraged with him that they attempted to “throw him off a cliff”. It didn’t matter that they were “in the synagogue on the sabbath day”. Let us be crystal clear…there must be no collusion between those who stand for Righteousness/Justice and those who facilitate the oppression of the poor. Persons unjustly held and treated like chattel in an industry that predicates it’s future success on their dehumanization need us not just to speak up, but to act to bring about the change necessary to set them free.
Yes… Salvation is a powerful action word, not a salve in the plantation’s religious balm yard. The hunger for a salve by which people try to cope with the stressors around them is all too real. It has fed the specter of addiction that plagues so many lives all around us. The results of this “hunger” and those who feed it are manifest in our prison population.
Toward the purposes of bringing good news to “the afflicted”, it would serve us well to work toward the decriminalization of drug addiction. We can begin this process by decriminalizing drugs, just as we did alcohol, and instituting rehabilitation programs at the community level that are geared toward the needs of those who can’t afford the high priced services geared to rich addicts…who do not usually end up in jail.
Our so-called “war on drugs” is for every intent and purpose an out and out assault on poor addicts who need our help. It is in fact a “war” that enriches dealers and police departments and the builders of jails. This is one of the dirty little secrets of this whole “business”… And a nasty , stinking one at that. How many law enforcement officers and departments want to see this war end when in fact it is a cash cow for them? How much of the drugs on the street corners of our inner cities actually come from the evidence rooms of local precincts? How many of the murders paraded before us on the Sunday morning news are committed by police who set out to victimize local “drug dealers”?
We can begin the empowerment of the “broke” and the “broken hearted” by building training facilities that are geared toward equipping the economically depressed with marketable skills. Nationwide, three-quarters of our prison population are high school dropouts. Education, not incarceration, should be our focus. More modern schools…not more modern jails, should be our priority. Let us explore the possibilities of giving “garlands” not “ashes” to those who are disadvantaged among us. Can we make them partners in the building up of Zion, and thus cultivate “mantles of praise instead of a spirit of fainting”? I believe we can. I believe we must try.
The time is now when we must insist that our government provide the resources for the rehabilitation of the redeemable among those who break the law, rather than hand them over to be exploited by those who see them only as a means to make lots of money. The belief that warehousing these souls for profit somehow makes our communities better turns the truth on its head. How can we work to bring out the worst in the disadvantaged among us, and expect that this will not come back to haunt us? Bringing out the worst in them is what our prisons do…more often than not.
Our top law enforcement officer Attorney General Eric Holder, acknowledges both the failure of our prison system as it is and the fact that drug addiction is in fact a public health crisis in this country. It is a travesty of Justice that we continue to address a public health crisis by imprisoning its victims. It is time to wake up from the nightmare of our delusions and collective insecurities.
Good news to the captive is sometimes bad news for the captor/investor/immoral politician. So be it. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and remain complicit in the dehumanization of our brethren. When we look at our 401k statements in the future, let us ask whether or not we are participating in the oppression of our neighbors and their children by investing in the prison industrial complex. The time has come to put resources behind our proclamations! How many of our municipalities have invested in this degradation of souls through their pension funds? Should we continue to support a political process and politicians opting to take the easy way out by “farming out” the incarceration of those who break the law?
Ultimately it is centers of production that will fuel the security and prosperity of our communities, not detention centers. Again, let us invest in the future of our communities through the empowering vehicle of a good education. Let us build up or schools, not build more prisons. The viability of our communities is a direct function of the viability of our collective humanity, not some crass notion of brute force exercised by those who pretend they wanna be “tough on crime”. Enough of the lazy-think of an opportunistic and lewdly gratuitous culture.
The ever resilient Nelson Mandela, patriarch of a new and revolutionary consciousness, articulates a vision of our humanity that we must all necessarily embrace in our efforts at building viable communities. Our communities, he insists, must be built by people who realize that to guarantee our own freedom we must respect and do everything we can to enhance the freedom of others. A society that predicates it’s security on the continued oppression of people will never be truly viable. Indeed it is actively sowing the seeds of its own demise. There is a great body of evidence pointing to the fact our prison system functions to create the very recidivism it claims to exist to deter. We reap what we sow… So JAH say!!!
At the very core of our idealism as a nation is a philosophical insistence that “all persons are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This is the central idea informing the exceptionalism we claim as a nation. Those who insist on the validity of the fundamental ideals informing our nation’s origins, it’s growth and it’s development; must never forget that our Faith has its genesis in a moral and ethical relationship with the God of Moses. That would be HIS/HER voice calling us from the “burning bush” of Justice. The Power from which that voice emanates is defined in the reality that we are inextricably connected in our “being“, and are therefore essentially affected by all the circumstances that touch each of our lives.
The voice of our supreme moral and ethical Source declares in no uncertain terms that we must take off the boots of complacency which weigh us down in the muck of injustice. Those boots keep us from advancing overdue liberty-promoting actions toward our fellow persons withering away as captives of an unjust system. These captives yearn for deliverance from the liberty- suppressing, life-thwarting circumstances prevalent around them. The undeniable dynamism of that voice holds our feet to the fires of Justice. Cover our ears as we might, that same voice echoes disturbingly from the distant “wilderness” of our beginnings as a nation. A nation founded on the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all.
Those who would articulate the dynamic instructions of our moral core are required to have an exegetical moment that is ontologically meaningful. Repeating platitudes that comfort those who choose various convenient states of inaction while ignoring the need for change, will only cement us in a place of cultural and spiritual decadence. Ours is a Faith resonating in the powerful vibrations of the “Gong”…Robert Nesta Marley:
“Jah come to break downpression,
Wipe away transgression,
Set the captives free… Set the captive free!… Set the captive free!” (From “Exodus”…)
* Images / illustrations courtesy of Google Images