While viewing the movie Why We Fight, about the military industrial complex, I was struck at how the weapons industry was spread across the country so it provided employment in so many states that trying to turn the tide of this spending seemed almost politically impossible. It is like that of the prison industrial complex. I am forever harping on the fact that Americans do not take the long view and for the most part seem unable to do math. Instead of educating the next generation of creative educated tax paying citizens we are building prisons and placing them throughout communities with high unemployment and in many cases privatizing them.
How do we unravel this trend of imprisoning more people than any other country in the world? According to the New York Times: “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”
I still hope we can wake up to how much in costs, in dollars, to keep so many behind bars it would jolt us awake but it hasn’t seemed to. More importantly what toll does this take on family systems and communities when parents are imprisoned? What happens to these off spring whose relationship with a parent is cut off and the financial viability of the family flails?
A recent report, in the Prison Legal News April 2011, details the facts of how much money 44 states make off of kickbacks from prison phone calls. The national average of these kickbacks is 47%, with some states getting upwards of 13 million dollars annually! Studies have shown that prisoners who can keep in communication with their children and families are more successful when they are released yet these policies of keeping the prices of phone calls 20x more than those made on the outside rages on. A few states have banned such kickbacks including most recently California.
Go visit a prisoner, take look at what is the vending machines in the waiting room, they are filled with nothing but high-sugar processed junk foods and sodas. The walls are lined with warnings to keep your children controlled yet they are reeling from the processed foods they have been fed and bouncing off the walls from all the sugar. I have heard tales told of what is served in these types of institutional settings and how little money is used to feed prisoners and therefore how processed and unrecognizable the foods offered are.
Radio West, of Utah, has a show worth listening to with legal scholar Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness” about the caste system revolving around the prison industrial complex and how prisoners are treated upon release. Michelle Alexander says that “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil Way began.”
Are you haunted by the fact that according to the Pew Center one in nine black men between the ages of 20-34 are incarcerated compared to one in thirty men of the same age?
I wish I had the answer how to turn this around but I do not. Perhaps we need to re-introduce educational opportunities into these institutions or rewind the mandatory sentences that give judges less leeway. How do we begin a meaningful dialog with the average person about the reforms needed to keep people out of prison by providing education and creating options for those who had served their sentences so that prison isn’t just a revolving door?