Harder it is indeed to get to the level of punishment typical in our land for crimes that in fact harm no one at all: "crimes" that throughout the years include marrying outside the arbitrary dictates of dominant religions, drinking from the wrong faucet, having a beer in private or smoking the herb that makes you feel mellow and sleepy. Most hard to justify is the rage for "Zero Tolerance" that makes judges into clerks and executioners unable to apply reason or a sense of proportion as it relates to crime and punishment.
Imagine, as Adam Gopnik suggests in Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice in the January 30th issue of New Yorker, "Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience." At least 50,000 men don't have to imagine it at the moment, they simply have to be conscious.
Although it's tapered off some recently, we've been given editorials and articles and TV harangues about how prison life is too "soft" for "Criminals" such as some teen who sent a naked picture on a cellphone to another teen and gets life in a cage -- or another unfortunate caught with marijuana who has to endure 10 or 20 degrading and terrifying years and lose his civil rights in perpetuity, but Prison life in the US is a veritable nightmare in comparison to what it is in places like Europe. 70,000 prisoners are raped in our prisons every year where HIV is widespread. Texas alone has sentenced more than 400 teenagers to life imprisonment.
My own state of Florida, with a governor who somehow escaped incarceration for having been involved in the largest Medicare swindle ever, is as I write this, trying to "privatize" Florida's prison system. Is that another way of washing conservative hands of blood or is it simply that to the conservative mind, being profitable makes it moral: a corporation locking up people and keeping the corporate bottom line healthy by squeezing convicts as well as punishing them?
Of course Florida, as many other states have done, turned to prison labor as a substitute for slavery after Liberals ended their horrific atrocities, locking up "vagrants" and selling their "slave" labor for private gain in much the same way as China is accused of when we try to seem better than they are.
" More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives"says Gopnik and mass imprisonment has tainted our mass culture with affluent kids in shopping malls imitating prison dress and speech and tattoos. We wear our incarceration culture on the bodies of our children, like the mark of Cain.
"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then."
Nor is it tapering off. The rate of incarceration is accelerating; tripling in the last couple of decades and with the tendency toward private slaveholder corporations, the comparison to the anti-bellum south is all the more frightening. We'r e being sold a southern sense of justice, suggests the author, and we sell it, as we sell our wars and our attacks on what we were taught were fundamental rights and even our attacks on reformers with appeals to rage. "If the accused had shot someone in your family, wouldn't you want to kill him?" asks the voice and of course I might, but fortunately for all of us, we have a system of laws, we have a civilization to prevent it. Indeed civilization exists as a brake on our base instincts, which instincts so often destroy it.
Is our current fascination with a withered government that thereby facilitates freedom in some magical way really compatible with a government so concerned with keeping all freedom away from so many people for ever expanding reasons? Or is the subjugation of such a huge number of people only a part of a vast scheme to subjugate most of us, to establish America as a vast plantation for the benefit of a very few slaveholders?
Perhaps not. Perhaps it's simply the fear in which we're all marinating in this safest period in history that's pickled our sense of justice; our fear of terrorists, dope fiends, predators, drunk drivers and heretics, but regardless of where the blame is put, we are, and continue to grow as a nation which more than any others, keeps people in cages and allows other people to profit from it.