Friday, February 29, 2008

Yale and Jail: An American Travesty

Jesse Jackson's an old guy now, a little crotchety, and often these days a step or two behind the times. He's made a few mistakes in his life, some personal and some rhetorical, and his style has always been a bit too intense for the cool medium of television. The mass media rarely pay attention to him anymore until some racial controversy flares, after which they invariably allow some ignorant young pundit to decry Jackson's obsession with black-white issues and to dismiss him as another Al Sharpton. (Don’t believe me? Google "Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson" and then "Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton" and you will be rewarded with over 75,000 hits.)

I mean no disrespect to Reverend Sharpton, whose own resumé goes well beyond the regrettable Tawana Brawley case, but Jackson is in an entirely different league. The man served on the front lines of the battle for civil rights when that sort of activity could get you killed. Indeed, he was in Memphis with Dr. King on that awful day in April, 1968. He returned to Chicago and lectured young African Americans on the critical importance of education and personal responsibility at a time when Bill Cosby was still voicing Fat Albert and pushing Jell-o Pudding Pops. As Bill Clinton so unhelpfully reminded us last month, Jesse Jackson in 1988 became the first black man to win presidential primaries and caucuses both inside and outside the south.

I saw Reverend Jackson speak during the 1988 campaign in a union hall in the Midwest. He started slowly and any television audience would certainly have tuned out after the first ten minutes or so (except that no cameras actually showed up). Jackson was clearly more preacher than politician.

And then, almost before anyone realized what was happening, the room was transformed by the raw eloquence and charisma of the man, and by the time he was done we would have overturned all the cars in the parking lot if he had asked us to. But of course he didn't. Instead, he urged us to be good citizens, care about others, and, obviously, vote for him on primary day.

This is a long introduction to an entirely different point, but I have always wanted to say a word or two about Jackson and never found an opportunity. Today the opportunity came, sadly enough, in a news story reporting that just over one out of every hundred Americans is now incarcerated somewhere in the United States. Jesse warned us about this, back in that cold union hall twenty years ago, he told us that our obsession with imprisonment would exact a great toll on our country. And then, in that rhyming style that has been caricatured but rarely equaled, he reminded us that it costs more to send a young man to jail than it does to send him to Yale.

More than a few of Jesse Jackson's punch lines have proven prophetic, and this, unfortunately, was one of them. Along with the news about our shamefully large prison population, we also learned that six states (all "Blue", by the way) now spend more on prisons than on colleges. In 1987, just a year before I heard Jackson speak, only three states spent even half as much jailing people as they did educating them; now a majority have passed that threshold with more likely to follow.

Tyranny does not always arrive to the beat of drums and the sound of jackboots pounding pavement. Sometimes it creeps in unnoticed, oozing through the small tears in our social fabric. Still worse, tyranny is often not recognized as such, indeed does not even recognize itself in those terms. George W. Bush, after all, probably still believes that Guantánamo helps protect Americans from terrorism.

We think of political prisoners as those who are jailed for acts of protest and civil disobedience. But politics often touches and destroys the lives of people who have never voted, let alone opposed the policies of a given administration. And the explosion in America's prison population is, at base, a phenomenon of politics more than law enforcement.

We have always imprisoned violent offenders, so the idea that we need to build additional facilities to incarcerate murderers and rapists and armed robbers is nonsense. Rather, the war on drugs, fueled by some legitimate fear and a great deal of paranoia, remains the single greatest culprit in sending young men and women to prison unnecessarily. Reefer madness took hold in the corridors of power during the 1960s and never lost its grip.

First, we allowed ourselves to draw some outsized distinction between pushers and users, as though the two categories didn't overlap significantly. Then we decided that the former, although mostly nonviolent, should be regarded as the moral equivalent of bank robbers. Finally, we sat back while the actual sale of drugs was redefined as "possession for sale", treating junkies with a large enough stash as narcotics kingpins, even without evidence that an economic transaction ever took place.

As the war on drugs continued to destroy as many lives as it saved (and as it persisted in stupidly emphasizing punishment over treatment), another, equally terrible phenomenon occurred. Grandstanding politicians, trolling for votes at whatever cost to the nation, began to pass mandatory sentencing laws, including "three strikes" provisions and "truth in sentencing" guidelines, that replaced the imperfect wisdom of judges and parole boards with the thuggish uniformity of punishment without regard to common sense. Old men, no longer a danger to anyone, languish behind prison walls because nobody has the courage to point out the absurdity of these vicious policies. To their everlasting disgrace, liberals and Democrats, in Congress and state legislatures, allowed these laws to pass rather than face opponents' "Willie Horton" commercials during their next campaign.

And now, of course, the monster enjoys a life of its own. The penal system has spawned a burgeoning industry, with fortunes made and sought through prison construction, prisoner transport, and even, increasingly, the privatization of entire facilities. Corrections officers constitute a powerful and influential voting bloc in many states and their endorsements are widely sought. They, too, have a vested interest in the expansion of the prison population.

The cynical reach of partisan politics has, not surprisingly, also extended to this issue. In most states, felons lose their right to vote, at least temporarily, meaning that millions of voices, disproportionately black and Latino, are silenced on Election Day. Republicans know this and actively purge the voter rolls of as many offenders and ex-offenders as possible. In addition, towns and counties that house prisons are often allowed to count their incarcerated residents as citizens for the purpose of assigning legislative seats, thus expanding the political power of rural conservative districts and diminishing the representation of poor and minority precincts.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods that most of us avoid, the social cost of this prison epidemic is staggering. Boys grow up without fathers. Unemployable men return home and attempt to find a way to survive. An overworked and underfunded parole and probation system offers little hope of rehabilitation, having only enough time and personnel to enforce violations and begin the cycle of incarceration anew.

Jesse Jackson warned us that this day was coming. But I doubt that he suspected in his worst nightmares that it would arrive this quickly and with this impact. Still, even the worst news is fleeting in this era of CNN and MSNBC. By this time next week, another young Caucasian woman will probably go missing somewhere in America and the conversation will move on, never to return to the subject of incarceration until we hit the next terrible milestone.

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