Written December 2011
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
If what Dostoyevsky says is true (and I believe it is), then America, which boast the largest prison population in the world, is perhaps the most uncivilized country there is. A bold statement, I know, especially coming from someone who has spent the past twenty-three years behind bars. But if what Dostoyevsky says is true, then what happens inside these places is crucial to understanding what kind of society we live in; and who better to speak to the reality of prison life than someone who is living the experience?
But no one wants to learn about the madness that predominates inside these places. People – average, law-abiding citizens- are losing their homes, jobs, and are struggling to survive, and the last thing anyone wants to hear is how hard prison is for a bunch of criminals. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is the prevailing sentiment and attitude. It never occurs that the rising incarceration rate is connected to the same economic and political policies that resulted in the home-foreclosure crisis and the rise in unemployment.
When people think of crime, what usually comes to mind is a poor person inflicting pain upon another poor person. Very seldom, if ever, do we stop and allow ourselves to consider the forces that create crime; trapped by the pull of our own necessities and fears, we live reactively, focusing on the effects instead of the causes of what we see and believe—and so we remain divided. And it’s precisely because of this division that we are our own worst enemies—divided, they rule us!
But who are “they”, and what do they have to do with the way in which we see and treat each other?
Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, tells us who they are and how they use us against one another:
“[T]he wealthiest one percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled…”
Hence, in the context of a capitalistic society, crime is the result of an unequal distribution of wealth. As such, a distinction between guilt and responsibility must be made. For instance, a person can be guilty of selling drugs but not at all responsible for creating the conditions wherein selling drugs is the only viable option of survival. Indeed, when one lives in a society where profit takes precedence over human potential, one’s very existence becomes a crime; and whether this takes on the form of selling drugs, stealing food, or joining a gang to fight over turf and limited resources, the goal is to stay alive.
I grew up in poverty, born to a marginally educated black woman who, because of a lack of opportunity, sought to raise me and my three siblings on welfare. In the whole 42 years I’ve been alive, I’ve only seen my father one time. By the age of ten, I was stealing food from the neighborhood grocery store in order to survive. I was thirteen when I took my first joyless joyride in a stolen vehicle, which ultimately led to my being sent away for the first time. By the time I turned seventeen, I had been living on my own for several years and selling drugs in one of the most impoverished, drug-infested neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio. A few months after my nineteenth birthday, in 1988, the year crack cocaine became an epidemic, I was involved in a shoot-out over money and I killed a rival drug dealer. For this, I was sent to prison to serve a life sentence for murder.
In a nutshell, this is the story of my life, and if any of it was unique, the telling of it would be inconsequential, an unnecessary recounting of my own personal troubles. However, what makes my story significant is that it’s the exact same tale told by millions of poor people who grow up in the slums of America, which points to the possibility of there being something larger than one’s personal troubles at work in the process to determine where one ends up in this society.
In his groundbreaking work on The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills, using the example of unemployment, explains the difference between personal troubles and societal issues:
When, in a society of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of society, and not merely the personal situation of a scatter of individuals.
Applying the same logic, it should be considered an issue that black people – in a country wherein they only represent thirteen percent of the population—make up 50 percent of those who are sent to prison. It is likewise an issue that virtually 100 percent of those behind bars are poor and come from economically deprived sections of society.
In addressing this issue, it’s not enough to point the finger at a bunch of so-called criminals and, without first looking at the economic and political institutions of society, claim that they are the sole cause of their predicament.
Despite what those in power would have us believe, no one starts out with the goal of becoming a criminal and spending the bulk of their lives behind bars, and in and out of prison. As individuals, we make choices based on what we perceive our options to be; and those options, be they good or bad, are a product of the society we live in.
“When a society is industrialized,” explains C. Wright Mills, “a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise and fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.”
Similarly, when a society is deindustrialized, a steel worker becomes a corrections officer; a would-be college student, a drug dealer. When communities are decimated and hemmed in by poverty, families take new heart or fall apart. When a fictitious “War on drugs” is declared on the inner-city, penitentiaries are built in rural areas and filled with criminals; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.
Contrary to what we have been told, this is how life (under the system of capitalism) unfolds – not in a picnic basket of unlimited opportunity, but in a crucible of socioeconomic forces that force us to assume positions of survival. Thus, a steel worker becomes a corrections officer, not in pursuit of a lifelong dream but in order to feed his family. A boy growing up in the ghetto becomes a criminal/gang banger, not to glorify crime but in order to survive. And what C. Wright Mills would have us understand is that the various permutations that we as individuals undergo are directly connected to the economic and political permutations of the system.
When corporations, through Congress, lobby for the enactment of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), removing obstacles for corporate capital and goods to move back and forth between Mexico and the United States, they do so with full knowledge and understanding of the economic consequences. Cheaper labor means greater profits; but it also means the closing of factories, a lower standard of living, a subpar educational system, and an increase in crime, as normal, everyday citizens scramble to survive. And what do those in power do in order to address the ramifications of their decisions? They build more prisons.
With the advent of deindustrialization in the 1980s, the prison population in the United States more than quadrupled, peaking at 2.5 million and surpassing both South Africa and Russia in per capita prison populations. During the same period (1980-2007) – while 30 million people languished below the poverty line – the United States produced 1,000 billionaires, and 227,000 millionaires with the combined worth of $30 trillion, more than the GDP’s of China, Brazil, Japan, Russia, and the EU put together. This is how the system of capitalism works: the rich get richer, and the poor get screwed – i.e., fucked in the anus sans grease!
In his book Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky talks about what he refers to as “superfluous populations,” which is a very intellectual way of calling people “trash.” From the perspective of the rich, whose main objective is to accumulate wealth, human beings are useless when they no longer contribute to profit-making, so as a result, explains Noam Chomsky, they want to get rid of them—and the criminal justice system is one of the best ways of doing it.
So prisons—it must be understood—aren’t about controlling crime and punishing those who commit it; they’re about controlling the poor. Looked at correctly, it’s not an exaggeration to say that what is going on now is very similar to what was going on in the 1940s when Hitler was exterminating the Jews. The only real difference is that those who are now being thrown away are considered “criminals” which, let’s face it, makes it a whole lot easier to accept. But just as Hitler created the justification for the mass extermination of the Jews, so, too, have those in power created the justification for the mass incarceration of the poor.
When Ronald Reagan declared the so-called War on Drugs in the 1980s, a finely honed strategy of imposing mandatory sentences for particular kinds of drugs (read: crack cocaine) was used to lock up those from predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. For instance, a young man in the ghetto gets caught with a kilo of cocaine or twenty thousand dollars in cash, and he is sent to prison for twenty years. In the meantime, nothing is said about the chemical corporations who make billions of dollars from sending the necessary chemicals to Latin America in order to manufacture the very drugs that are destroying inner-cities throughout the United States.
And what about the bankers who launder billions of dollars in drug money through American banks? According to the O.E.C.D. (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), it’s estimated that a half-trillion dollars in drug money gets laundered internationally each year—more than half of it ($260 billion) through American banks. But are any of these people in prison? The answer is NO! And the reason why none of these people are in prison is because those in power determine what constitutes a crime and, more importantly, who gets categorized as criminals. A white man laundering billions of dollars in drug money is a businessman. A black man selling drugs in the ghetto is a criminal; and for his “crimes,” he is sent to prison.
And what happens to that Black—poor White or Hispanic—man when he enters America’s prisons? If he makes it through orientation without being raped, he’s lucky. It’s a brutal world in here, and unless one is totally devoid of common sense, one very quickly learns that there is safety in numbers. In other words, the picture repeats and expands, and it’s the ghetto streets all over again. But in here the police operate without restraint, and the old adage about “absolute power corrupting absolutely” is on full display, Not a day goes by without someone being sprayed in the face with mace, shot with a pellet gun, or thrown down a flight of stairs.
A few weeks ago, while watching the news, I witnessed a group of college students in California being sprayed in the face with mace because they had the audacity to protest against the rising cost of college tuition, student-loan debt, and the uncertainty surrounding future employment. In New York City (and around the country), I witnessed members of Occupy Wall Street being forcibly evicted from their camps, some (as in Oakland California) being shot with pellet guns, thrown atop automobiles, and kicked and shoved about like cattle. Watching these things, it occurred to me that this is what Dostoyevsky must have meant when he said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Indeed, what many Americans witnessed and experienced for the first time is something that those of us in prison witness and experience on a daily basis.
So why are normal, everyday citizens being treated as criminals, and for what crimes are they being punished? From the perspective of those who own society, it’s considered a lack of appreciation when slaves rise up to question their masters; and of course when people come together and begin to talk earnestly about the inequity of the system, they automatically represent a threat to the status quo and must go. Then we learn how thin the veneer of civilization really is, and how fragile our so-called freedoms are.
When eyes are burning with mace, when blood is dripping down the face, it all becomes frighteningly clear: capitalism is a sham; and whether in or out (of prison), as long as we live under a system that views everything and everybody as a commodity, we’re all doing time. And that, at the end of the day, is the real crime—not that some of us are locked up, but that none of us are free!