Prisoner = ?

This post was sparked by a blog of Joshua Bardwell.  If you are reading me, odds are good you read him, so find it if you want.

Premise   Prisoner = Slave

In the US, slavery is illegal.  Based on percentage of population, there are more black men in prison than any other group.  Prisoners are made to work, doing manual labor like making furniture and military stuff.   If they don’t want to they are punished with solitary confinement.

My take:

Let’s move past the racial demographic here and say that most people in prison are males from the lowest socio-economic brackets.  (Find statistics if you like, I just work with opinions mostly).  They are put into prison for doing something society says is bad and they are put there for a certain amount of time.  They then are made to do this mostly uncompensated manual labor, but we (the people) feed, clothe and house them.

So I would take the line of it is more like Prisoner = Indentured Servant

I would guess that most prisoners would rather be doing something than nothing, so the manual labor is good in the respect.

Most of the time crimes that are committed are a function of society.  If you are poor in a society that prizes wealth then you might steal to try to live up to this societal ideal.  If you live in a society where drugs are illegal but media glorifies them and your life is pretty sucky, you will try them, maybe getting hooked.  If you are not well educated and from a social class that is on a whole not well educated or concerned with education then your job prospects are extremely limited.  Going very Thomas Moore here, I would say we (as a society) make them and then we punish them.  It is like we want this free work force, so we keep making it happen.  (In fact since the 80’s the number of people in prison has really increased). Read this great article: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111843426 about the way it was, the way it is, and the dirty dealings, then meet me back here.

Ok.  So let’s look at this quote “But compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom. Inmates are learning to translate books for the blind. In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program has been cut back to 19 inmates.”

These inmates went in, they learned a useful in-demand skill that they are very unlikely to have learned on the outside.  They get out and they get well paying jobs in a respectable field and they don’t come back.  They now are able to live up to the expectations of society.

So, Prisoner = Apprentice

But as you read most of these good programs have been cut in Folsom and in all prisons across our country.  This adds a lot of weight to the idea that we want these people behind bars.  Things like the ridiculous “three strikes” law show that we are not interested in rehabilitation.  There are a lot of people out there making money off of the lives and labor of these men who society has failed.  I am all for pulling yourself up by the boot straps, but first you need to have some boots.  And society has not given that to many of them.

This is one of those things where my mind starts to hurt.

We know the problem:                                 We have more prisoners than any nation in the world at any time.

We know why:                                                  Our society has very difficult expectations.

Lots of people make money off of the keeping of prisoners and the forced labor.

We know how to fix it:                                   Training for in demand jobs.

Less power given to the prison guard unions.

An effort to cut some of the social stigma associated with being in prison.

Better education and social programs in low income areas

Plan old fucking human compassion

Now where is the problem?  Where is this circuit broken?  Is it the lobbies?  Is it our moral structure?  Is it the prisoners?  The schools?  Is it me? You?  I think about this and I feel helpless.

Now on a personal note:

When my brother asks for money to pay his parole officer I give it to him. Even if I really needed it for myself. Last week I gave him my last $40, when I know he needed $50, and I wanted to cry.  I am not telling you this so you will think I am a martyr.  I am saying this to convey the feeling of helplessness and anger.  He is smart. He wanted so badly to be an architect when he grew up, before prison.  Once while in prison he got into a good horticulture program, and then he wanted to go into agriculture.  What does he do to live now that he is out of prison?  He takes any manual labor job he can get.  His brains are wasted.  You might be thinking “Oh, he should pull himself up,” and I ask how?  His self-esteem is shit. He has limited skills and unlimited social stigma.  He is angry, sad and a little suicidal.  He wants to make something of himself and knows he never will.  Life must feel pretty bad for him.  And I don’t like to be around him much, because I see the lost potential and I want to scream.

I think how different his life would have been if he had learned a good skill, the system had helped him find a job and supported him with counseling. If you are going to spend the money anyway why not keep him in for 4 years and pay for great training, rather than keep him in for 10 and give him nothing.  In prison he is a teacher (he teaches GED classes). Out of prison he is a faceless day laborer.   His story is one of 3 million.  Almost every one is just as sad and hopeless.

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