The Prisoner & a Prison Strike, Colltalers
People in seven U.S. states have just started a 19-day strike for liberty and social justice. Through hunger strikes and specific acts of civil disobedience, the organizers hope to trigger a national, ample movement focused on reforming and redefining the America’s prison system.
In case you’re wondering, you’ve read it right: the call or freedom is being led by incarcerated Americans, representing some 2.4 million inmates, or the biggest contingent of jailed people in the world. China and India, each four times the U.S. population, don’t come even close.
This staggering fact, though, is the one thing that can’t be added to the portfolio of horrors the Trump administration has already amassed in less than two years. It only fits neatly the president’s relentless agenda of singling out and vilifying every non-white citizens of this country.
A few other disturbing figures: although less than 13% of the U.S. population is African-American, nearly 38% of inmates are black. Of our current 350 million, 17% is considered Latino, or Hispanic. Behind bars, however, the percentage rises to 32% or almost third of all inmates.
The largest strike in U.S. history will last three weeks, to focus on issues such as slavery, access to rehab programs and lengthy sentences. Yes, slavery. To risk their lives fighting record-breaking wildfires of this summer, for instance, inmates in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas were paid nothing. In California and other states, they were paid up to $1 a hour, or some other, less undignified amount.
What follows, and perhaps this whole post, has no use to those who believe that the word dignity doesn’t belong in a same sentence as crime and punishment. But one measure of compassion and pragmatism of any society is its ability to provide redemption to its fallen citizens.
Not everyone can be included, and it’s yet to be invented a model utopia that doesn’t need police, and rules, and penalties for those who cause harm to others. That being said, we may be already living in a police state, specially for people of color, when one can be detained for being it. Millions of black Americans know society unduly fears them, and they may wound up getting shot by the police. Or going to jail.
A high percentage of the inmate population is composed of so-called drug offenders: people who either for socio-conditions, or lack of education, or disease and addiction, failed too quickly to the Reagan-era ‘three strikes law.’ Some were still in their teens
when the key to their freedom was tossed. From that point on, it doesn’t really matter if they grew up to potentially be exemplary citizens or hard criminals.
Society doesn’t seem to have room for none them. Odds of a black, poor, and former convict person to get a decent job are practically nil. In many ways, the worst choice is the only one available: to remain in prison and being fed a toxic diet of soul-crushing experiences. And die.
Naturally, there are all kinds of people behind bars in any prison around the world. In most cases, if circumstances leading to such a terrible fate were predictable, there wouldn’t be any overcrowded jail anywhere. But getting into trouble is an integral part of the human experience.
One thing that seems more or less predictable about the U.S. inmate population, though, is that wealthy jailbirds are the rarest kind. And so are white collar professionals, even when convicted, real estate moguls, politicians, and, yes, Catholic priests and other ‘spiritual’ leaders.
Unlike what we hear around, not everyone claims to be innocent. But there are a significant proportion of those who actually are, either for bad counseling, botched police investigations, forged evidence, faulty technology, falsehoods, or systemic over-reliance on witness accounts.
A despicable cause for so many people we lock up, however, is the booming business of prison as commercial enterprises. The GEO Group and the Corrections Corp of America, giant concerns that own most U.S. private jails, their shareholders and investors, plus the politicians they maintain, make billions on the back of the poor behind bars. But the overall conditions of the prison system remain close to disgusting.
Sexual abuse continues to be rampant; and so is physical violence and ingrained under-prepared personnel looking after the prisoners. Not unlike what happens to the small percentage-wise contingent of veterans, most Americans remain oblivious to the fate of those locked away.
Politically motivated judges is a reality most present in the world of justice and criminal penalties, one that sells itself as impartial but that it’s far from it, to the class, and race, of the prosecution agents and the prosecuted, to extra judicial considerations of prejudice and zealotry.
Again, that we don’t see class diversity behind bars, is by design, specially when there are balance sheet goals to be met and shareholder interests to protect. To their eyes, and society’s, when people are sent to jail they are expected to be deprived first of their humanity. They’re defined by the nature of their crime, and taken as inventory and production means, for their ability to generate returns in the stock market.
This strike started Aug. 21, marking the date Black Panther Party’s George Jackson was shot to death by guards, and ends on the anniversary of the Attica uprising, that left 40 people dead, both 47 years ago. Not to be dismissive, it’s unlike to change much, but even if raises a little awareness, among us and the rest of society, about the life that almost 10% of Americans are living right now, it’s a worth goal pursuing.
It’s been an eventful couple of days, what with the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Hey Jude, their ode to empathy and encouragement, and the passing of playwriter Neil Simon. But then John McCain signed off and unlashed an onslaught of public grief, acknowledgement, and lots of grand standing. It’ll dominate for weeks the national news cycle, along the hypocrisy and political expedience that’s sure to follow.
Arguably the most famous American POW, McCain’s own five-year martyrdom in the infamous ‘hotel Hanoi’ prison, and subsequent run as Senator, give him credentials of a true American hero. Even when being wrong as a congressman, on issues concerning equality and justice, his personal integrity was never in question. And he can’t be blamed for giving a president under suspicion a badly needed diversion.
Let’s hope that the serious crimes Trump is implicated on, from self-enrichment while in office, to treason by colluding with a foreign power, morally despicable behavior, and incompetence dealing with the nation affairs, won’t remain ‘below the fold’ for long. As McCain’s example suggests, one may fail to act effectively upon one’s own moral convictions, but should never lack or give up on them. Rest in Peace, John. WC