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Does Mass Incarceration Define America?

January  7, 2013  By 1  Comment

If so, what does that mean exactly? If not,  why not?

A few days ago I came across Chris Hedges’ article in Smithsonian  Magazine titled Why  Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society. We’ve covered the need for  prison reform from a variety of angles here at The Good Men Project.  We’ve tried to unravel the problems through the lens of society, technology,  media, race, gender, science, politics, history and religion. Yet the title of  this article stood out to me and, as an American living abroad and viewing his  country from the outside, something resonated. Of course, America has been and  continues to be defined in myriad ways. For some we are the world’s economic  powerhouse despite our debts. For others we remain the pinnacle of freedom. The  melting pot. Tech innovators. Fashion and art pioneers. Science gurus. But what  of the absurdities within our criminal justice system? Has the system’s ugliness  been left alone to grow for so long that it can be added to the list of who we  are?

In the article Bryan Stevenson,  recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social  justice, hearkens back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow for comparison.  Here’s an excerpt:

Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery  once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population  but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million  inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in  jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the  criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge  numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records.  Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once  again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef  Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction  block.”

I’ve visited prisons and taught in juvenile detention centers and even have a  forthcoming book about the topic – I’m fairly rooted in my views. But I wanted  to hear from other voices who come from different sectors and backgrounds. Here  are a few insights I found:

Cali Estes, an  addiction coach and therapist, said:

The majority of our prisons are comprised of drug addicts, not serious and  habitual hard criminals. As a society we tend to arrest and prosecute for  everything instead of looking for a solution to the problem. Prisons do not  rehabilitate, educate or ‘fix’ the broken individual, they leave them more  broken and send them back into society.

In America we have no uniform laws across states, so if you get caught  with marijuana in one state, and depending on your prior offenses, you can  go to prison for life but in another state you can smoke openly in the street.  With our government we have a tendency to ‘throw everyone in jail’ and it is  mostly for drug offenses. Once in jail these individuals learn how to do harder  drugs and commit even more crazy crimes including and involving violence. The  system does not understand addiction and should not be arresting drug addicts  and taxing the American people to hold them in jail. If we truly wanted to help  our citizens we would overhaul the healthcare system and not simply dump people  in prison. I believe that other countries laugh at us because we have such a  shoddy system. We change our minds depending on our current leader (strict  or lax) and go from a retribution model of prison to a rehabilitation model and  then provide some laws that are not uniform for all our people. It doesn’t make  sense and it doesn’t address the actual issues.

Susan Sexton, a former judge, prosecutor  and public defender, had this to say:

I have been in the criminal justice system a long time. When I rotated back  to criminal court this time, I was amazed at how lengthy the sentences for  drug offenses had become: 60-year-sentences for a delivery-of-cocaine charge to  young men with virtually no prior record.

Fergus Hodgson is a native  of New Zealand now based in North Carolina. He hosts The Stateless Man and is a policy advisor  with The Future of Freedom Foundation. Here’s what he had  to say:

Mass incarceration, while not necessarily a widely held image of the United  States, is an extremely damning symptom of a nation with deep problems. In  particular, it reflects a sophisticated and cruel police state, one that ruins  the lives of many innocent people. That it has continued for so long and even  expanded in recent times suggests a lack of compassion among voters who fail to  recognize the viciousness of laws that criminalize peaceful behavior. The  many-decades-long “war on drugs” is a prime example that has achieved nothing  but destruction, both within the United States and in the many countries plagued  by drug cartel violence. It also highlights the enormous hypocrisy of the  politicians and enforcers, since many of these people openly admit that they  used drugs yet face no such punishment. Further, many states even have taxes on  illegal substances, to profit from their sale.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist  and author who frequently offers her insights on CNN, Fox  News, and the BBC, said:

Yes, mass incarceration is indeed a sad commentary on America. The swelling  prisons – with ever younger prisoners – signifies their disillusionment with  society and their loss of faith in the American dream. It is also tragic that so  many of the prisoners are illegal immigrants, who should be sent back to their  native country, but languish on our taxpayer dollars instead.

Bob Sherman, Director of  the Chicago Chapter of the Parents Television Council and former  president of Glenview  Art League, had this to say:

Mass incarceration defines us as a society whose social fabric is torn. It’s  not hard to understand why. In pursuit of money, the barons of the entertainment  industry have created a tragically toxic media environment. Over a thousand  clinical and statistical studies have confirmed the results. Broken homes  and single parenting are becoming the norm. Children are robbed of a secure  nurturing home. Gangs flourish and prisons overflow.

In addition to the human cost of mass incarceration, the economic cost is  staggering. But the harm does not stop on the domestic front. Our  international image is damaged. We strive to promote human rights, but our  own incarceration rate robs our message of much of its moral force.

What can we do about it?  There is no magic answer, but the Parents  Television Council seems to be on the right track. The organization was  founded by a right wing conservative with the help of a left wing  liberal. They put politics aside and worked together to help keep innocent  babies from becoming vicious criminals.

Similar sentiments from an astonishing variety of people flooded my inbox  when I asked the question. The answer, conclusively, was “yes.” Americans are  the top dog in many aspects, and because of this our cliffs are steeper. Now  that the fiscal cliff has been averted, it’s time we pour our collective energy  not so much into what the problems are within our criminal justice system (we  know them) but into how we can fix them.

***

–Photo: AP/Eric Risberg, File: In this May 20, 2009 file photo, several  hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San  Quentin State Prison.

Read more at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/social-justice-does-mass-incarceration-define-america/#mm86304ls0cHbuFo.99

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