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The Prison Time Machine…

This week’s Online New Yorker magazine features excellent commentary on mass incarceration by Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America.”

The author well captures the reality of American prisons as time machines and warehouses of “the lock and the clock.” He also offers several causative factors that resonate with my own conclusions.

When Reagan came to Washington in 1980 there were 220 souls imprisoned for every 100,000 people in the US. Today, that number is 743 and climbing. The US, while having only 5% of the world population, contains 25% of all prisoners on earth.

Michelle Alexander writes that the system is not really broken; it’s doing what it was designed to do. “If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.”

There are more black men in the criminal justice system today than were under slavery in 1850. More black men are disenfranchised from the vote today than were so in 1870.

I would add class control to that equation. It’s an historical axiom that whenever and wherever retributive laws are imposed, sooner or later they are visited on the rest of us. Witness the security laws, RICO statutes, morality and vice codes, ad nauseam.

As Adam Gopnik noted: A conservative is a liberal that’s been mugged. Usually left out is that a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative in prison!

Conservatives, always with an eye toward profit, are well into the business of prison privatization. As the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) admits in their 2005 annual report:

“Our [profit] is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts….any changes with respect to drugs…or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced [thus negatively impacting our profit].”

Crime is down in NYC by 80%! As a matter of fact, crime is down altogether throughout the US and the Western world by 40%.

Gopnik cites Franklin E. Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, as arguing against mass imprisonment as the reason. (Only a fraction of mass incarceration are violent, predatory criminals.)

Among other factors, such as targeted “hot-spot policing,” Zimring comes up with the notion that most casual/cultural criminal activity is like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunities.

Gopnik adds, “Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequences of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes.”

As a student of socio-economic causation, this notion resonates with the experiences in prison of most of us.

But defining criminal...

I might ask: As for the massive criminal profiteering by the 1%?

“White-collar crime happens thru an intersection of pathology and opportunity,” Gotnik states, “getting the SEC busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of that pathology.”

Hot-spot policing, indeed!

“Zimring’s research shows clearly that, if crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes,” writes Gotnik. “What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some ‘lesson learned’ in prison.”

As for the vast prison gulag now present in America, most prisoners simply don’t belong in prison in the first place…and certainly not for the “crimes” and longevity they are currently subject to.

Decriminalize marijuana, it’s clearly as culturally ubiquitous as alcohol and a whole lot safer. In fact, eliminating imprisonment for minor drug activity altogether eliminates about 55% of the prison population right there.

And, as I’ve often written, some 85% of those in prison are guilty only of non-violent, non-predatory statutory offenses for the violation of consensual, quasi-religious/conservative sensitivities imposed on the vast majority of us.

Pardonnez mon français, but so long as we’re not harming others, what goes on with our own bodies and in our own homes ain’t none of their f***ing business.

It may come to pass that major aspects of an increased population repatriated from the prison gulag–as was the case with returning vets from Vietnam–could be a key ally in neutralizing the ruling elite’s cultural pathology for personal profit, privilege and power.

Now there’s a hell of an anti-crime project!

I believe that former revolutions throughout this planet’s tenure have more than demonstrated that the hour of compromise and survival for the 1% is quickly passing… Debate that!

Dr. Publico

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