Sunday, August 12, 2012

Remember those in prison

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Data Source: Source: Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies,
“World Prison Population List (8th edition),” January 2009.
I’ve been working through topics that shape US party platforms, praying, as I start each week, about the topic that comes next. This week: Prisons. Prison privatization. Mandated sentencing. Prison labor.

I once helped empty an apartment left vacant by an aging hoarder. Each room was worse than the one before, each stack confronting me more troubling than the last. Roaches darted from every pile; holes in the ceiling dripped black tar. I had agreed without knowing the extent of the damage, and found myself dreading each next step on the way.

I’m beginning to feel a bit like that as I follow rabbit trails of numbers, dig through stacks of statistics. Part of me would rather not know: not know the extent of our culture’s obsession with guns, not see the staggering cost of our dependence on weapons.

And I would rather not remember, think about, acknowledge anything to do with prison.

For fourteen years my husband worked for a prison ministry and we knew, up close and personal, men and women who had done time. We had ex-offenders for dinner. I organized delivery of Christmas gifts to children whose parents were incarcerated. I listened to my husband’s stories of visits to prisons across the country, around the globe, and stood in worship with men whose first experience of worship and God’s grace took place behind bars.

I know from my own conversations, from my own friendships, that there is much that is broken in our correctional system. I know men who with a halfway attentive lawyer would have been released on probation, yet did significant time because the public defender systems of many states offer no incentive for genuine legal aid.

I know there is little effort made to give inmates tools to face reentry, little support given to those who leave prison with no safety net of family or friends.

And I’ve seen, first hand, the damage to families when a loved one is sent away, too far to visit, with no sense of justice done.

Remember those in prison.

As if you were together with them in prison.

As if you were the one ripped from your family, your life, and locked away until . . .

from Pew Center on the States Infographic
As I’ve inventoried the sad stories I've seen and know, I’ve also done some digging, and find myself grieving, and wondering, and praying. The reality is far worse than I knew.

Some simple facts:

The United States is the uncontested leader in incarceration. As of 2009, our incarceration rate (743 per 100,000) was almost eight times the average of Western European countries (96 per 100,000), more than five times the worldwide average of 146 per 100,000.

One in 104 American adults is behind bars. One in 33 is under correctional control (on bail, on parole, in prison or jail).

One in four of the world’s inmates is doing time in an American prison.

16% (350,000) of incarcerated adults are mentally ill. The percentage in juvenile custody is even higher.

3/4 of drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent offenders or in prison solely for drug offenses.

85 percent of all juveniles who appear in juvenile court are functionally illiterate. More than 6 in 10 of all prison inmates would have difficulty writing a letter, or filling out a job application.

Young black men without a high school diploma are now more likely to be incarcerated than employed. 

More than 2.7 million children now have an incarcerated parent. That’s one child in every 28.

I find these statistics alarming. Take the time to read them slowly. One in 28 children: that's an average of one child in every classroom. Multiply the misery. Then multiply the expense.

Yes, our move to lock up drug offenders, the mentally ill, illegal aliens, hard to manage juveniles is more and more expensive. Many states (like my own state of Pennsylvania) now spend significantly more on prisons than on higher education.

Even more alarming than the avalanche of jarring statistics and troubling graphs is the impetus spurring this explosion of expense and human misery.

Who benefits from locking so many people behind bars?

What motivates all the tough on crime rhetoric? The “three strikes/you’re out” slogans? The immoral mantra of “lock them up and throw away the key”?

There are books written on this, but here’s the piece that alarms me: a move to privatize prisons has introduced a financial incentive to increased incarceration.

Simple logic would suggest we’re all better off if prison populations are kept as low as possible.

But once corporations begin building prisons and looking at those prisons as an avenue to profit, that simple logic is swept away as the new prison-industrial complex presses politicians to sell prisons, to authorize private prisons, to guarantee prison populations that maximize profit.

Data Source: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.
(Graph: Prison Policy Initiative, 2010)
It’s hard to tease out cause and effect in a subject as complicated as crime and punishment, but any chart depicting prison populations as percentage of population show a relatively stable rate through the mid seventies. While Nixon’s “War on Drugs” led to a slight rise in the tide of incarcerations, the real change came in the mid eighties. In 1984, a number of Tennessee investors with close ties to the state legislature formed Corrections Corporation of America, (CCA), as a way to use venture capital, rather than public money, to build a new prison and lease the beds to the state. Since then, privatized prisons have been a tremendous growth industry, allowing correctional departments to add prison beds with lower up-front costs.

As of today, nearly ten percent of inmates are housed in private prisons run by a private industry that exercises significant influence over all aspect of our justice system.

According to a  recent Justice Policy Institute report:
For-profit private prison companies primarily use three strategies to influence policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships, networks, and associations. Over the years, these political strategies have allowed private prison companies to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration and thus greater profit margins for their company. 
The report offers detailed evidence of the cozy relationship between lawmakers, congressional staffers, prison industries, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a self-described “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators.”  A more recent Nation article   offers details about the influence of corporately-funded ALEC in ensuring growth in the prison industry:
ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. . . . ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. . . ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.
"We pause here to note CCA stock is up 340%
in the last 10 years; the S&P 500 is up less than 20%."
Even more troubling than the thought that private profit is behind our nation’s expansive prison population is the suggestion that prison labor has become a new form of slavery, providing even further profits for the prison industry and replacing good jobs here in the US, even outsourced jobs in other countries, with work done for just pennies an hour. The Nation article describes the legal maneuvering that made this possible; a Global Research report offers specifics:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. . . Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call "highly skilled positions."  . . .
Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.
As the Global Research report notes:
Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States. . . For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don't have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don't like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.
As I read report after report, I find myself staring out over my green backyard, enjoying the silence of my quiet study, wondering what it would be like to be locked away, to be working for pennies, to have no privacy, no freedom, no hope.

And I repent: of my own ignorance. My disinterest. My failure to remember those in prison. My naive trust that those elected to serve the common good are in fact doing that, rather than bending to pressure from industries where profit is the highest, sometimes the only, goal.

What do I take from this?
  • As I’ve said on every topic I’ve examined, industry money controls the conversation, shapes legislation, and drowns out the legitimate concerns of citizens.
  • Politicians who pass legislation ensuring expanded prison populations, or who promote fear as a tool to ensure votes, do a disservice to the truth, their constituents, and our already tight budgets. 
  • Christians who advocate a “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality need to rethink the meaning of grace, forgiveness, restoration, and what it looks like to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • As a free person, able to read, able to vote, I have a moral obligation to be alert, knowledgeable, and articulate about unjust incarceration policies, and I am without excuse if I don’t remember, pray for, and look for ways to serve those who find themselves in prison.
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Overcrowding in a California state prions; Wikipedia
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.