Nothing New Under the Sun

(cartoon by J.D. Crowe/Press Register) SC 1 ST Berkeley News – UC Berkeley

King Solomon famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there was nothing new under the sun.”  Three thousand years ago man’s folly was already tending to repeat itself.  Patterns of behavior and the propensity to do evil were well documented back then.  Man’s inhumanity to man is the same old sad tale repeated over and over, unfortunately it is not limited to those who choose to do evil.  While researching for the writing of this blog I have read a number of prison memoirs and research papers and it is apparent that the observations that I make about prison and prison life cross both space and time.  From a World War II German Military prison to 1970s Great Britain; from California to Texas to Michigan and prisons in between; from the 1930s until today, written by theologians and PhDs to the uneducated, unifying themes regarding prison life and treatment of prisoners demonstrate that my observations of life inside the MDOC in many ways are both honest and disturbing.

Ones does not expect in the twenty-first century to encounter ideas and practices discredited long ago to be the standard operating conditions.  That America and all it claims to stand for has been set aside in one area of governing a civil society is both disturbing and alarming.  As I was writing this essay there were images of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man on the news and an advertisement for a new TV drama about a group of criminal investigators whose job was to ensure that the innocent were not wrongly convicted.  The abuses of the criminal justice system are finally making headway against the “tough on crime” agenda of the politicians, police, and corrections agencies in this country.  Grass roots organizations are cropping up in every state of the union calling for reform.  Even the president, whether you agree with his polices in general or not, has gone against the conventional wisdom of his political party and seeks to introduce some reforms into the federal corrections system.

A recent news article put a spotlight on the fact that we are not talking simply about convicted felons, but that a much larger number of people accused of misdemeanors that don’t even carry jail/prison time are serving time simply because they can’t afford bail.  According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice over 11 million people pass through 3000 jails in the US every year.  People are even dying in jail from lack of urgent medical care and proper oversight in over-crowded and antiquated facilities.  During the recent arctic cold blast, a jail in Brooklyn, New York was plunged into darkness and freezing cold for several days when the electric and heating service to a portion of the facility was interrupted by an electrical fire.  The inmates were apparently tapping S.O.S on the windows of their cells calling for help.  The warden of the facility denied the severity of the problem even while inmates were calling the defenders office and pleading for help.  My own experience in jail was a cell so cold that frost formed on the inside of the window, no extra blankets and only a thin cotton jumpsuit for warmth in a room so cold you could see your breath.  So, I can empathize with the desperation of the situation and believe that it is true contrary to the official statements of the warden.

George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”   I find myself falling into the first category.  Don’t get me wrong, we need dreamers but after living through the nightmare of prison I don’t sleep very well at night.  Change must happen and the longer it is put off the higher the cost both financially and in human terms.  That is the point of prison reform.  Not just the recognition that there is a problem but there needs to be action taken to address the issue.  Not studies to determine the severity of the problem or pilot programs to explore alternatives.  The experts have already done these.  It is up to the people to demand that those in leadership of our government stop denying or minimizing the problem but take the advice of those whose occupation and preoccupation is focused on the problem.  It is like global warming.  People look at the cold winter and ask where is this so-called “global warming?”  The problem is that global warming is a poor term often used out of context when the issue really is “human activity induced climate change.”  A short catchphrase doesn’t properly encapsulate the issue.  The use of the phrase “prison reform” has the same sort of problem.  People look at crimes reported on our 24/7 news cycle and think that our society is less safe than it once was.  FBI crime statistics have shown that crime rates for all major categories have decreased steadily since the 1980s.  They then give credence and credit to the stricter laws and harsher penalties for causing this trend.  Research has shown that other factors have had a greater effect on crime reduction and that the stricter laws and harsher penalties have actually hindered what would have been even larger reductions to crime rates.

Prison reform is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and taking a reasonable approach to punishment.  Broken homes, single parent families, education, addiction, and poverty are at the core of prison reform.  Shutting off the street to prison pipeline that is responsible for the severe overcrowding, and all the problems that come along with that is what we are talking about.  The racial disparities in incarceration rates among the minorities from urban environments.  The aging infrastructure of prisons and jails that our society can’t afford to maintain let alone build more.  The erosion of respect for others different from ourselves that allows us to justify treating them not just poorly but as subhuman.   As somehow not deserving of basic human rights even thought they are enshrined in the Constitution.  This is was prison reform is about.

To know about a crime either before or after it occurs and failing to do anything with that knowledge is to be considered an accessory and makes one guilty by association.  So, wouldn’t it be true then that to ignore the advice of experts regarding the urgent need for prison reform could rise to the level of criminal negligence at the very least, or a gross misconduct in office and breach of trust by politicians who cling to alternate facts or decry reporting on prison problems as fake news?  For once I would like to see Solomon proved wrong that there is something new under the sun.  I pray that the logjam will be broken, and long overdue reforms will be instituted to our criminal justice system.  This will only happen when the people hold their representatives accountable and demand better treatment of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends, neighbors and aliens.

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