Friday, April 13, 2007

Prison Nation

God Save America: Prison Nation

It has become sadly necessary to tell the following story. It is a true story. It is told in order to deter others from doing something, anything, that will result in their going to prison. Unfortunately, in the world of today a man or woman need not necessarily do anything at all wrong to wind up imprisoned. The story is also told to show the rest of those of us who would never transgress the law, ever, in any event, about what happens to those who do end up in prison. Because many have no idea.

It is told in order to describe the American mis-adventure. The American episode following the turn of the twenty-first century is full of division and fear, hate and loss, discontent and hopelessness. This is to paint the canvass of an America in the age of terror, of global warming, of gilded decadence and condominium towers and marble enclaves: while millions overseas face starvation, malnutrition, disease, famine, remaining as prisoners of their own state and downtrodden and exploited by their own governments, America and the West shine on oblivious to the rest of the world.

In the 1990s Congress took away most of the teeth in the federal habeas corpus review of incarcerated prisoners’ claims of wrongful imprisonment and made it harder to obtain relief and easier to dismiss claims: Congress in 2006 specifically pared back habeas jurisdiction for prisoner “detainees” at Guantanamo and elsewhere in military custody in the so-called war on terror, just as many others in Congress and in the universities and human rights communities are now doing their very best to try to reinstate these fundamental rights. They do so for very good reasons.

The fundamental right to review of one’s detention is a precursor for justice that is as old as the magna carta. Without it, no person, man or woman is safe from the complete devastation of life wreaked through the long reach of arbitrary state power. Lawyers for American residents and citizens accused of terrorist crimes have said that their clients have been threatened with indefinite detention as “enemy combatants” if they refused to plead guilty to the government’s accusations against them. That kind of leverage would only be possible if and when habeas corpus has been stripped away. The consequence, surely unintended, is that the fundamental right to a fair trial has thereby also been stripped away.

There is a certain stigma attached to prisoners and accused persons both, so that the same stigma attaches to the lawyers and others in the community who represent, and try to help them. But there are many many in the community who nonetheless fight very hard for prisoners -- terrorist and criminally committed alike -- in order to ensure that justice is served and that justice is also preserved. And well they should. Then too, ours is a society in which sex offenders are made to live under bridges because of restrictions on residency making it impossible to find housing. That is surely not justice served or preserved at all.

What the hell is going on? We plaster the internet with registries of offenders, painting them all with a scarlet letter and green license plates regardless of whether they are actually ill, truly dangerous or present little or no risk of re-offending, making it easier to arrest them at the drop of a hat, driving the most dangerous underground, making it impossible for families of one-time offenders and statutory offenders, themselves hardly more than children, and young offenders and victims themselves to lead a normal life free from stigma, impossible to earn a normal living, and thus creating an atmosphere filled with fear and hate, and hopelessness and discontent.

All of this is driving a violent, drugged out, workaholic, numb, in-the-fast-lane, materialistic society into even greater violence, greater division, and greater moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Too many who do not belong in prison are put there, and there they languish, to be forgotten, to become fodder for the prison state that America is fast becoming. How many lives are connected to a single prison cell? To ten cells? Thousands? Millions? Many are guilty, many are not. Many got what they deserved. Many did not.

Society has been served with a bill of goods.

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