The Prison Age
By Chad Thevenot, Guest Editor
"Prison is designed to break one's spirit and destroy one"s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality - all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of its human and each of us who we are. If Nelson Mandela
n the last twenty years, the number of men and women incarcerated in the United States has quadrupled, approaching two million prisoners this year. Of course, an enormous part of this explosive growth has been the huge increase in incarcerated drug offenders. Currently, there are almost half a million drug offenders incarcerated in the U.S., constituting 23 percent of state and local inmates, and 60 percent of federal prisoners.
But, often talk about prisons is just this - statistical. As useful as these statistics are, they actually help hide the tragedy of America's unprecedented lust for incarceration - the Prison Age. They hide the reality of prison, helping us become numb to its creeping escalation, to the now ubiquitous reality of prisons. At the turn of the century we now have weekly television dramas about contemporary prison life. It's no longer a tragedy; it's part of the American landscape. Not unlike slave quarters in the pre-Civil War South, prisons are just an accepted part of American life, and similarly coveted in depressed areas for their "economic" value.
This issue of the Drug Policy Letter looks beyond the statistics to examine the human reality of incarceration, particularly for drug offenders. This is, after all, why we are concerned about drug policy: we don't think it is just or humane to incarcerate people for what they con
sume, however unconventional. And we acknowledge that those tastes are satisfied by a market that is currently perverted by extremist policies, not by the products involved, into an enormously destructive industry - an industry that enriches violent criminals with hundreds of billions of dollars annually, that decimates inner cities where it feeds on poverty and hopelessness, and that corrupts democratic institutions and even entire governments. Why? Simply because we insist on making the use of certain drugs a criminal justice issue, rather than a public health issue.
"Lock'em up and throw away the key." Politicians and others who are quick to sound "tough on crime" often throw around the reality of prison as though it were a trivial issue. But prison is not a word; it is a harsh reality. When society sentences someone to prison, we are not really saying "We condemn you to 5,10,20 years, or a life sentence in prison,"
but, rather, we are saying "We condemn you to 5, 10, 20 years, or a life sentence of being humiliated, raped, physically and mentally abused, neglected, seperated from loved ones, and, perhaps, to slowly go insane." We are really saying "We sentence your children to grow up without their parent, perhaps leaving them without any parent, and vulnerable to physical, mental, and sexual abuse. And, we sentence your family to your loss, to humiliating prison visits, and to life-long stigmatization."
And the sentence doesn't end when and if the person is eventually released from incarceration. Often disenfranchisement, stigmatization, traumatization, and an inability to find employment continue for years, sometimes life, after prison.
Although this issue aims to talk about the reality of prison and to put human faces on the sterile statistics, we wanted to include some basic statistics about life inside prison. As many readers of this newsletter know, there is a wealth of statistical information about who are inside prisons. However, there is almost no statistical information about how those persons live, about conditions inside prisons. Naturally, given the embarrassing reality of the Prison Age, we hide our prisons, mentally and physically. Almost everything we know about prison conditions is anecdotal-information relayed by prisoners, their families, their attorneys, and prisoner advocates.
For example, last year U.S. District Judge William W. Justice ruled that the constitutional rights of Texas inmates are routinely violated, saying that solitary confinement conditions are terrible, vulnerable prisoners are unprotected from rape and assault, and guards rely on "malicious and sadistic" excessive force to control prisoners. "[A]noffender should not - and must not - be sentenced to a term of enslavement by gangs, rape and abuse by predatory inmates, or excessive force by prison employees," Judge Justice said.
Professor Craig Haney, an expert on prisons, testified before Judge Justice about prison conditions in Texas: "The level of despair ... was unparalleled in my experience. " Haney, chairman of the University of California at Santa Cruz psychology department, said he saw inmates smeared with feces, urine puddles in cells and hallways, and inmates who appeared to have psychological disorders screaming and banging their heads against walls. He said inmates who are kept in solitary confinement are typically kept there for all but five hours a week, and usually rely on radios to "anesthetize themselves."
With the reality of prison being so harsh, why is contemporary
America so frivolous in imposing this reality on its own citizens? Outside of the obvious benefits of incapacitating violent criminals so that they cannot commit violent crimes in the future, most of the balance of prisonthe inhumane reality - serves no constructive purpose. The victim gains nothing. Society gains nothing. And the offender is severely degraded.
Some would argue that the harsh reality of prison serves as a deterrent. Perhaps, but how much real torment inflicted on real people can we justify to serve as a potential discouragement to future criminals? We are constantly told that drug users should be imprisoned to "send a message," but we should be equally concerned about the messages sent when we opt for cruel and unjust punishment rather than common sense alternatives. Plus, the criminal justice system doesn't really deter drug-related crimes because there is too much potential benefit.
In truth, all punishment in excess of limiting a prisoner's ability to commit future crimes is sadistic, satisfying and enriching no one, only gratifying our basest instincts to inflict pain on others. And even the fundamental goal of limiting a prisoner's access to society should not be viewed as punishment, but as an unfortunate necessity in the cases
of violent and habitual offenders.
Essentially, prison is the last step in a process of identifying an enemy, engaging that enemy, and incapacitating that enemy. And, in that sense, our swelling prisons are a testament to the over-criminalization of our society; it is an indication of just how many of our citizens have been identified as "enemies of the state." Prisons have essentially become mass warehouses for America's expendables - criminals, the mentally ill, the poor and hopeless, and persons with unconventional lifestyles. Do we really believe we know where this warehousing will end, and who will be exempt?
We know that it is unconscionable that there are so many people in prisons and jails who don't belong there. About 1.2 million of the two million incarcerated persons are nonviolent offenders, according to the Justice Policy Institute. We know there are better ways to address the problems of drug abuse and addiction in our society. It will cost Americans about $23.74 billion this year to incarcerate those nonviolent offenders. By learning more about the realities of prisons, we remind ourselves why we object so vehemently to incarcerating drug users and why we must continue to fight to hasten the end of the "war on drugs."
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