As the holidays approach, I turn as I do every year to focus on those who are incarcerated. This isn't the result of the religious injunction in Matthew 25:44 about visiting those in prison. It's because my business is to defend people charged with serious crimes, and I'm painfully aware that when the defense doesn't work, and it often doesn't, the client pays with with what the Thirteenth Amendment blandly calls "involuntary servitude." That means being a slave of the state. For a long time. A time measured in years. And it's as bad as it sounds.
The 12/31/2007 figures from the Department of Justice reveal the size of the US prison complex and the huge number of people confined in it:
– 2,293,157 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails – an increase of 1.5% from yearend 2006, less than the average annual growth of 2.6% from 2000-2006.
– 1,532,817 sentenced prisoners were under state or federal jurisdiction.
– there were an estimated 506 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents – up from 501 at yearend 2006.
– the number of women under the jurisdiction of state or federal prison authorities increased 1.7% from yearend 2006, reaching 114,420, and the number of men rose 1.8%, totaling 1,483,896.
That means that there are more than 3.7 million people who are in prison or jail or under supervision at this minute. So that you can visualize just what these people look like, there's this:
At yearend 2007 there were 3,138 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,259 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 481 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males.
Put another way, the prison population is disproportionately male, black and hispanic. We don't need a long discourse to explain this and the obvious racial injustice in the disparity.
But my concerns here are more human than statistical. The walls keep us out. They keep us from thinking about the prisoners. From noticing them. But to be truly human, and to be truly responsible as citizens, we need to be aware of the human side of the imprisonment factory.
How can we conceive of the vast ocean of human misery behind these figures? Is it even possible to describe what long term incarceration is like?
There's a wonderful book by Jarvis Jay Masters, who remains on Death Row at San Quentin, Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row, that conveys the heartbreaking reality of long term prison in short stories. These stories break my heart.
In one story, a prisoner is finally released after serving decades. His sentence has finally expired. He gives other prisoners all of his belongings, which is a kind of tradition, a statement of solidarity with those who remain behind. A way of saying, "Stay strong." He leaves behind a wrist watch. The person whom he gives the watch thinks it is broken because it does not tick. He cannot hear it ticking. He takes it out on the yard to find somebody who knows how to fix watches, hoping that the watch might be repaired. Only thing is, it doesn't need fixing. He's been locked up for so long that he's missed the change from analog, ticking watches to those with electric clockworks.
Can we feel the isolation and distance and pain of this? Can we understand as well that the job of constantly guarding those the state incarcerates is also frustrating, boring, mind sapping, dangerous work? The prisoners are not alone in suffering in this penal world; everyone in it suffers and aches.
Unfortunately, upon release things aren't always that much better for prisoners. Can we imagine what it's like when someone who endures and survives long term imprisonment is finally released? Can we imagine how strange the world looks? And how frightening? And how dangerous?
Recently, I met a man who was seriously mentally ill. He had served every single day of a 27-year sentence. When he was mandatorily released, his sentence had expired. There was no supervision of any kind. No counselors, no parole officers. Nothing. They gave him a suit, $40, 2 weeks' supply of his psych medications, and they put him on a Greyhound bus to an upstate, New York city. When he arrived, his sister ultimately relented and agreed to take him in. If he behaved. If he took his meds. If he went to look for work. If he behaved himself. Long story short: he didn't refill his prescription. Maybe he didn't want to. Maybe he didn't have money for it. Maybe his Medicaid application was delayed. Nobody's really clear what happened.
One night he finally broke down and in a fit of anger destroyed his sister's kitchen table. She called the cops not to have him arrested but to get him out of the apartment, to get him some help, to get him to a hospital, to calm him down. When the police arrived, he refused to move. They ordered him to put his hands behind his back. He refused. He wouldn't move. At all. They didn't call for a mental health assist, or an ambulance, or a shrink. No. They decided to subdue him because he was not following their verbal commands. A month after his release, a release that came after 27 years, he found himself in jail again, charged with the assaulting officers his sister called to help him. Can we imagine how painful this is?
The stories could go on and on. You cannot see what prison is like in those old grainy movies where the prisoners bang their tin cups on the bars, make license plates, break rocks with a sledge hammer, and steal shards of metal from the mattress factory to make shivs. Or where they cut the grass at the side of the highway. Or where they chop cotton. Modern incarceration isn't like that. It isolates the confined far more thoroughly. It deprives them of all human touch. It deprives of company. It puts cold steel and glass where bars once were.
The walls keep the prisoners in. But they also keep the world out. Inside there's no real education, training, treatment. Outside we don't know what's happening in our names. And we don't really care. The prisons in upstate New York are the only employment for miles in an economy with nothing else. The cities provide the people to be jailed and watched and fed and clothed. We pay the taxes for all of this, but probably have never been inside a real jail or prison, and probably never will be. We just don't know what it's like. And it's oh so easy to forget about all of this.
Oscar Wilde was right to say, when he saw the convicts at Reading, "Well, if that's how the queen treats her convicts, she doesn't deserve to have any."