Friday, September 20, 2013

The Crime of Punishment

Throughout my adult life, I have had the misfortune to know several people who were sentenced to prison.  Their crimes were nothing on par with the magnitude of the financial ripoffs we have all endured at the hands of the banking industry and our cellular service providers.  Most of the crimes committed by the people I know were drug related.  America is the absolute worst place on earth to be a drug addict or an alcoholic.  The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.  Yes, our good Christian nation throws its fellow citizens behind bars at the drop of the hat.  Our justice system fills the prisons with mostly people of color, of low economic status, the mentally ill, the uneducated, the abandoned and powerless - all efficiently shipped off to prisons managed mostly by white people.

We should all know to not steal, threaten someone with a weapon, sell drugs to minors, rape or kill someone.  Some people should be sent to prison simply because we do not have any other way to protect ourselves from rapists and murderers.  But in my humble opinion we throw too many people into prison and leave them there for far too long.  The longer a man spends in prison, the more unfit he becomes to live in society. 

A young man who is very dear to me is currently incarcerated by the State of Kansas.  A series of tragic circumstances entirely out of his control combined with his personality and character defects to place him in prison.  He was orphaned, grieving, and homeless.  He was wild and angry but a danger only to himself.  His prison sentence seemed to reflect that there remains a bit of mercy and willingness to recognize the unfortunate circumstances in a young man's life.

It is interesting to observe the behavior of my family and friends whenever I bring up this young man's name.  No one wants to hear anything.  End of story.  The prevailing attitude is if he is in prison it is because he is criminal and stupid or he would not be there.  Even though every one has committed some mistake or lapse that, given the right set of circumstances, could possibly earn us a stay as a guest of one of our state or federal wardens.  Ever had one too many drinks but drove home anyway?  Texted while driving?  Damaged property, even accidentally? Smoked a joint?  Shared your powerful pain killing prescription drugs with your neighbor or your spouse?   Minor offenses that, given the right tragic twist by fate, or your own bad luck, could become criminal offenses that would put you in prison.  It is very easy for American citizens to be sentenced to prison, easier than anywhere else in the world.

It has been to my immense sorrow to learn exactly how few rights an American citizen has once that citizen becomes a prisoner.  A person can be put into segregation for weeks and months on end for small rules infractions.  There is a semblance of appeal in this segregation process within the prison, but it is the inmate's argument against the full weight and autonomy of the Warden and the Department of Corrections.  An inmate can only appeal a subset of infractions to another warden in a different prison.  Who would most often win that appeal process, I wonder?  And as far as I know, the inmate rots in segregation while the "appeal" makes its way through the paper trails and business hours of the prison administration.

When you personally know and care about someone enduring this barbaric form of punishment, isolated in a brick cell hardly larger than a coffin for 23 hours at a time, it weighs on your heart.  Your own powerlessness to intervene or intercede on their behalf is an immense burden.  

I recently learned, to my horror, that none of us have a right to visit our loved ones in prison.  A warden can, at his discretion, rescind the visitation of any prisoner for up to a year, whether or not that prisoner is found guilty of any rules infraction.  As long as a "review" is made, a warden can deny visitation indefinitely.  It is an extremely punitive and arbitrary form of punishment, and something even the American Civil Liberties Union cannot address.  The highest court in America has already ruled no one has a constitutional right to visit their loved ones in prison.  What legal arguments prevailed before the Supreme Court Justices of America to cause them to deny such a profoundly human need?

It has been quite an education for me, learning the realities of our penal system.  It is terrifyingly easy to be sentenced to prison.  Once there, it is terrifyingly easy to be abused in ways we are not even aware of from the relative safety of our lives on the outside.  In fact, you can be emotionally abused by this system without ever being convicted of a crime at all. 


Anonymous said...

So sorry to read that about your legal system and all those lives wasting away in prison. Interestingly, that this was not new to me. I used to watch Michael Moore's TV Nation (regular features about prison) and recently discovered the radio programme Democracy Now. Not to forget Al Jazeera News,BBC, etc. We have seen the inmates packed in huge halls on double beds. Unfortunately people in the USA are not very aware of this or don't give a s... Keep telling your friends and family about the unjust system and about that man they knew ... Maybe some day somebody will care.

Jackie said...

I wish I could say you are right that most Americans are not aware of their prisons, but they are. They simply don't care. There is a hateful and gleeful attitude reigning in the "home of the free" these days. Americans won't care until it is one of their own!