Once upon a time, you disobeyed the law and you were given a punishment. If the crime was severe, you went to jail. Once you completed your sentence you were released and the rest was up to you. (I probably should have added the fact that all of the above is applicable to you if you were Caucasian, if not, the tale has a completely different- if not harrowing- path from accusation to imprisonment or death.) Those days, when one’s punishment was fair, are ancient history; because in today’s society the accused enters an intricate system of monetary interests from the moment they are booked: a system of interwoven special benefits for private companies that ensures that sentences will not only be guaranteed but long, and basic services will be minimal at best.
Let’s begin with some statistics: according to an AFL-CIO article entitled, “Prisons and Profits: The Big Business Behind Mass Incarceration,” a 2008 study from the Pew Center on the States reports that one out of every 106 white males ages 18 or older is incarcerated, one out of every 36 Hispanic males ages 18 or older is incarcerated and one in every 15 black males ages 18 or older is incarcerated. In many of the largest cities in the United States, more than half of young black men are either in the correctional population or released but now stigmatized with a criminal record.1
Private companies that run prisons contract that they will run at full capacity by requiring that the government keep them 90-100% filled. They also lobby for stricter laws that increase minimal time limits for nonviolent or minor crimes, as well as lifetime sentences that capitalize on “three strike” offenders. Their eye has turned to their new target: undocumented immigrants. They are now lobbying for harsher prison penalties for undocumented immigrants.
You may be thinking that this doesn’t seem too bad, despite the clear minority prejudice. After all, these individuals committed a crime, so what’s the big deal? Here’s the problem: the combined effect of lobbying for tougher legislation (that creates a need for more prison space) and “bed guarantees” is that it leaves a serious wake- everything from juvenile detention to parole and probation services fall within this for-profit margin. The need to increase profits routinely leads to the minimizations of services like health care for inmates, as well as overcrowding and poorly monitored facilities can allow for unethical treatment of prisoners to go unchecked.
Once a prisoner completes his/her time, they can look forward to ongoing court costs, unemployment (which means court costs go unpaid and they can possibly be re-jailed), and- if their family support system lives in government subsidized housing- no place to live.
No one is purporting that guilty people shouldn’t do penance for their crimes. However, with such rampant greed, the lines between guilt and innocence fall solidly on the one creating the legislation. Likewise, the penance should fit the crime, not fill a bed for as long as possible.
Jesus didn’t approve of the money changers in the Temple who profited off the children of God who came to rectify themselves before their creator; likewise, there is a solid chance this widespread abuse of a population made up almost solely of minorities and the poor would register an equally explosive response from him. The longer we remain silent, the greater the chance that the situation will only get worse. As people of privilege, you have a very powerful tool at your disposal- the right to vote. Learn more about your local politicians before you submit your vote. It’s not just a financial problem, it’s a human rights problem. The more we damage our society with unfair rulings and an endless spirals of debt without the ability to return to productive citizen status, we unravel the foundation of the American Dream- that one can rise above their circumstances, right their wrongs and live a happy and fulfilled life.
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