No, not the one you think, outrageous as it is. I'm referring to the
US prison system that's with no exaggeration about as shockingly abusive as
the gulag abroad. It qualifies for that label by its size alone - more than
2.1 million as of June, 2004 and growing larger by about 900 new inmates every
week. Blacks (mostly poor and disadvantaged) especially are affected. While
they make up just 12.3% of the population, they account for half the prison
population, and their numbers there have grown fivefold in the last 25 years.
Hispanics (also poor) account for another 15%.
About half of those incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, and half
of those (500,000) are drug related. But while blacks make up 15% of ilicit
drug users, they account for 37% of drug arrests, 42% of drug offenders in federal
prison and 62% in state prisons. And Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that
in one third of the states 75% of all prisoners for drug-related offenses are
black. In my home state of Illinois they reported the number to be an astonishing
89%, a total exceed by only one other state. Further, in a so-called free society,
below the radar are hundreds of political prisoners, mostly people of color,
there only because they represent a threat to the state from their pursuit of
justice for their people if they were free.
Today the US shamelessly has more people behind bars than any other
nation including China with over 4 times our population. And things
have become especially repressive against those in society least able to defend
themselves including immigrants of color and our newest head of the queue demon
- Muslims. The Bush administration has made a bad situation far worse taking
full advantage of their fear-induced "permanent state of war" and
sham "global war on terrorism" to target all those seen as a potential
threat to their plan for global dominance and full control at home.
Taken as a whole, this is a national disgrace and outrage, but the effect on
those targeted is pretty much below the radar, unreported and undiscussed in
the mainstream. Who cares about a couple of million mostly poor, mostly people
of color (including immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and have no legal
rights at all) languishing behind bars out of sight and out of mind. When any
of this is discussed, it's to let the (voter eligible) public know our political
leaders are "tough on crime" and working to keep us safe. Safe from
whom or what? In the words of a great world class journalist, that kind of talk
is "what comes out of the rear end of a bull." What's really going
on has little to do with public safety but lots to do with controlling a justifiably
restive population of poor and desperate people, the inability of those people
to afford a proper defense in our so-called criminal justice system stacked
against them, and a growing opportunity for big business to profit on human
misery. It's a kind of modern day slavery - a growing state and privately run
criminal injustice and prison industry using human beings as their product.
In this land of opportunity and the "free market", all things (and
people) are commodities to be exploited for profit.
A GROWTH MARKET OF POOR AND DESPERATE PEOPLE, MOSTLY BLACK AND HISPANIC
- A READY RESOURCE FOR THE PRISON GROWTH INDUSTRY
The way this country has always treated its least advantaged throughout its
history is shameful. British historian Arnold J. Toynbee perceptively understood
this in his quote made 46 years ago when he said: "America is today the
leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in the defence of vested
interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for: Rome consistently supported
the rich against the poor.........and since the poor, so far, have always and
everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome's policy made for inequality,
for injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number." Imagine
what Toynbee might say today if he were still living.
Toynbee didn't say it but he might have added that none in America have fared
worse than people of color - American Indians, Hispanics, Asians and especially
Blacks first brought here as chattel and who remained that way for over 300
years. Even when they were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
and guaranteed the right of life, liberty and property, due process and equal
protection under the law by the Fourteenth Amendment they still seldom got it.
Throughout the 100 years of Jim Crow justice and even after the civil rights
gains in the 1960s, most blacks and other people of color have always been on
the bottom rung of society (along with our native people) and denied most of
its benefits including equal justice under the law.
There are those today in the US, even from the progressive community, who like
to say this country has come a long way from its racist past, and while there
are still far too many inequities we're making progress. Are these people living
in the same country and on the same planet as I am? In the US the statistics
on blacks alone in the criminal justice system make a mockery of any notion
of a nation no longer racist. When it comes to the issue of justice, we've never
been more racist since the days of legal slavery. The numbers are truly shocking
and in a country claiming to be a democracy and a model for the rest of the
world. I hope that world makes another choice. There are far better ones than
ours, and our imperial adventures abroad and policies at home toward our least
advantaged prove it.
THE SHAMEFUL FACTS PAINT AN UGLY PICTURE OF ANOTHER (LOCKED UP) AMERICA,
OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND
Here are some key facts. Nationwide black males over 18 are incarcerated at
9 times the rate of comparable white males, and in 11 states those rates range
from 12 to 26 times the rate for whites. In my home state of Illinois the rate
is 15 times, and in the nation's capital the rate is an astonishing 49 times.
The most current data on incarceration for blacks in the US was 1,815 per 100,000
vs. 609 per 100,000 for Latinos, 235 for whites and 99 for Asians. For adult
black males the rate was 4,630 per 100,000, 1,668 for Latinos and 482 for whites.
In 1999, 11% of black males in their 20s and early 30s were in prison including
one third of black male high school dropouts. Even worse, the statistical model
used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the turn of the century to determine
racial and ethnic differences in their chances for incarceration at sometime
in their lifetime predicts a 29% chance of serving prison time for a black male
aged 16 in 1996. The comparable chance for a white male in the same age group
was 4%. In 2002 the Justice Policy Institute reported there were more black
men behind bars than in colleges or universities. It also reported that 30%
of black males between 20 and 29 are either in prison or on probation or parole.
From the numbers above we know that one in every 20 black men over 18 is now
in a state or federal prison compared to one in every 180 whites. And in some
states like Oklahoma, Iowa, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, the black male
incarceration rate incredibly is between 13 -14% of all black men in those states
- a devastating blow to the black families and communities there. It's also
true that the best predictor of a state's incarceration rate and its total prison
population is the size of its black population.
By almost all measure the state of what can only be called the US criminal
injustice system is shocking and outrageous. In the last 35 years the total
number incarcerated has exploded from less than 300,000 in 1970 to more than
7 times that number now. Today the US is number one not only in its total prison
population but in the highest number per 100,000 population imprisoned - 690.
Only Russia is a close second with 675 while in South Africa it's 400, England
- 125, France - 90, Sweden - 60 and Italy - 40. Would anyone suggest the US
is 17 times more non-law-abiding than Italy, or is there a simpler explanation?
It's also true that race is the most prominent reason why states deny voting
rights to convicted felons and ex-felons. The greater the percentage of blacks
in a state, the more likely it is for that state to disenfranchise its residents
who've served time in jail. A prison record in those states means a loss of
a citizen's most fundamental democratic right. The laws vary by state, but The
Sentencing Project estimates 4.7 million Americans, or 1 in 43 adults, have
currently or permanently lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction.
And 1.4 million black men, or 13% of all black men, are so disenfranchised,
a rate 7 times the national average. Even more shocking, the same report estimates
that given the current rates of incarceration, 30% of the next generation of
black men will be disenfranchised at some time in their life. And in states
that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently
lose their right to vote.
Let's be very clear. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution it
can, and I believe should, be argued that all state disenfranchisement laws
are unconstitutional. Section 1 of that amendment reads: "The right of
citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the
United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous servitude."
It remains for a future Congress and/or the courts to address this issue and
decide whether we're to be a democracy for all our citizens or just for those
we decide are eligible and for the reasons we choose. And this doesn't address
the more basic question of whether our right to vote really matters. The public
has virtually no voice in choosing the 2 major parties' candidates, and when
we cast our votes the new electronic voting machines can easily be programmed
or manipulated to ignore our choice and count it for another candidate and even
do it multiple times. This is why half the eligible voting public opt out. They
don't believe the system is free and fair so why bother. That thought never
leaves my mind, and I wonder why I bother. But that consideration awaits another
commentary and analysis, a pretty fundamental and important one.
THE BIG AND GROWING BUCKS SPENT ON LOCKING PEOPLE UP IN CAGES
Since the 1970s the prison-industrial complex has exploded in size and continues
to grow exponentially. It now exceeds $40 billion annually and rising. On average
states now spend 60 cents on prisons for every dollar spent on higher education,
up from 28 cents in 1980. And several large states are so hell-bent to lock
people up their annual budget for prisons exceed that for education. Also, the
overall rate of prison spending growth has greatly exceeded that for education
for the past 25 years. It's shocking that the annual per prisoner cost today
almost equals a year's tuition at Harvard. And what's all this spending buying
us. Not a damn thing except a nation growing more repressive, more racist and
more likely to target anyone if they ever run short of their current favorites.
But since 9/11 they've tapped a new vein of 1.5 million Muslims. And if they
throw in Hindus, Buddhists and a few other easy to demonize miscellaneous sects
out of the mainstream they can easily triple that number. Now that's a "strike"
that may be too "rich" to ignore. Think of all the new prisons they'll
need to lock up a load of them, get them off the streets and help keep a new
growth industry growing and prosperous.
Contrary to the "law and order" baloney from our politicians, there's
no evidence of a rising trend of criminality, including the violent kinds. Since
1980, the data on the national crime rate has trended slightly up, then down,
without any significant change. Still the incarceration rate has skyrocketed
reflecting a crime wave that doesn't exist. In the 1990s, thanks to a good economy,
crime rates actually fell, but incarceration rates rose dramatically nonetheless.
Smell fishy? It sure does to me. And my own view, shared by others, is that
this is all part of a sinister effort to control dissent by a combination of
a state-induced climate of fear and hard line national security police state
tactics to keep a restive population in line. Those most likely to be restive
are the ones most deprived, the ones left out over the last 25 years when the
wealth gap widened exponentially between rich and poor and continues to unabated.
At the same time the social safety net has been and continues to be shredded
making conditions intolerable for the poor and also impacting lower and middle
income earners and families. Of course, the ones always hurt most are people
of color and that means mostly black people. But Hispanics are gaining ground
in this race to the bottom as that segment of our population (including undocumented
immigrants) is growing the fastest along with those from Asia.
THE SO-CALLED "WAR ON DRUGS" - IT'S A HOAX AND A NATIONAL
We should have caught on by now. When our political leaders want to scare hell
out of us about something, real or imagined (you can bet it's the latter), they
declare war on it. It gets the juices flowing and the flags waving. We had the
phony "cold war", and now, with "the evil empire" gone and
desperate to find new imagined and contrived enemies, we have a "war on
terrorism" and a "war on drugs." We also have an unmentioned
"war on the climate" as witnessed by the alarming rate of melting
of the polar and Greenland ice caps. Maybe one day they'll declare dandruff
public enemy number one and declare war on it. Might as well. It would make
as much sense as all the others, except for the one real one they never mention
caused by global warming.
And, oh yes, there's one other war never mentioned, and it's the most important
and dangerous one of all - it's the ongoing and growing war on the Constitution
and our sacred Bill of Rights. They're being taken from us right before our
eyes, and in our blindness and mental fog we don't even see it happening. Most
of us know the Ben Franklin quote about those who would sacrifice their freedom
for security deserve neither and will lose both. He also said that "distrust
and caution are the parents of security" and reportedly said at the signing
of the Declaration of Independence "we must all hang together, or assuredly
we shall all hang separately." Franklin's contemporary, the great German
philosopher and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, just as wisely said that
"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they
are free." Franklin, Goethe and many others aren't considered iconic and
venerable historic figures for nothing. And if we take the trouble to read them,
we have the benefit of their great wisdom. They've warned us with it, and we
damn well better be listening and heeding them. If not, we'll awaken one day,
find our precious freedoms gone, finally understand what happened, and it'll
be too late.
Except for the 2 unmentioned real wars, the others are surreal ones. They're
contrived and concocted by devious politicians for their own interests like
trying to get reelected or needing a reason to raise defense or homeland security
spending. They're also to benefit their corporate allies who profit from them.
The more they can scare us the greater the amount of our tax dollars they can
divert from vital societal needs to put in the pockets of their corporate friends
and fight wars of imperial conquest for their benefit. And the more repressive
laws they can pass to destroy our civil liberties, and as discussed above, lock
up in cages those most in need and most likely to be restive about it.
The current catchy phrase in the "drug war" was first used during
the supposed crack epidemic in the 80s, but we can pin one more rap on Richard
Nixon who first declared a "war on drugs" over 30 years ago. But the
idea of making some "drugs" illegal goes back much further than that,
to the 1930s (and earlier) when prohibition ended and alcohol producing companies
may have decided to eliminate the threat of a competing "drug." You'd
think we might have learned something from 13 years of violence and corruption
under Prohibition that made criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people who
may have just wanted a cold beer and also created a new revenue source for organized
But all that was chicken feed compared to today as the UN now estimates the
annual take from trafficking elicit drugs is around $400-500 billion. That's
double the sales revenue from US legal prescription drugs Big Pharma reported
in 2005. Those profiting big time from the illegal ones include more than the
"kingpins" and organized crime. The market is so big everyone wants
in on it. For many banks, including the major international money center ones,
"laundering" drug money is one of their important profit centers.
And it's well-known that the CIA was been involved in drug-trafficking (directly
or indirectly) throughout its half century existence and then began to profit
from it in earnest during the Contra wars of the 1980s to fund their operations.
Today the CIA is part of the elicit drug trade in places like Afghanistan working
with major criminal syndicates in the huge business of trafficking heroin. The
take from this one operation alone is so lucrative it's hard to imagine they'd
ever give it up or not want in on all other major parts of the drug trade worldwide.
Who'll stop or prosecute them? And what criminal enterprise wouldn't want them
as a partner to guarantee them ease of access to the US and other major markets.
That's a marriage joined together none of the parties would ever want to put
And now in this modern Age of (contrived) Anxiety, we have 2 new "super-spook"
agencies established to take full surveillance advantage of the Bush administration's
unjustifiable "wartime" powers and fear-induced concocted "war
on terror" to last for "generations" - The Office of Homeland
Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Wanna bet they're
also in the elicit drug biz big time. How could they resist it. They both need
every buck they can get to watch all of us, everywhere, all the time - which
is what they're now doing. And it's an indisputable fact that all the spy agencies
are above the law and can do whatever they please - spy legally and illegally,
traffic elicit drugs, torture detainees they control and murder anyone they
target including heads of state.
But it's the purpose of this essay to focus on how the so-called drug war has
led to a burgeoning prison-industrial complex that adversely affects the lives
of millions of society's most disadvantaged who happen to be mostly people of
color and most of them black. Just like during Prohibition, otherwise law-abiding
people have become criminals and are being locked away for long sentences. The
repressive "mandatory minimum" sentences are especially harsh and
outrageous. Supposedly established to target "kingpins" and big time
dealers, it hasn't turned out that way and likely was never intended to. The
US Sentencing Commission reports that only 5.5% of all federal crack cocaine
defendants and 11% of all federal drug defendants are "high-level"
dealers. The rest are low-level operatives and those caught "possessing."
In most cases they're from society's least advantaged and poor, and most of
them are black. These convenient targets create a ready supply of bodies to
fill prison cells as part of the plan to remove the unwanted from the streets
and create a new growth industry at the same time.
SOME QUICK FACTS ABOUT COCAINE AND ITS DERIVATIVE "CRACK"
AND HOW ITS USE TARGETS BLACKS
First off, coca leaf cultivation in South America has been the cornerstone
of the Andean region for 4 thousand years, and its consumption has been part
of the culture since before the Incas. It's commonly used by millions of people
there including the cocaleros, or coca farmers, as we in this country use coffee,
tea, a glass of wine or just a cold beer. Besides drinking coca tea, the leaf
is chewed to relieve fatigue, suppress appetite, as a communal activity and
to offset altitude sickness. The US Embassy in Peru even recommends it for the
Use of cocaine in the US didn't first begin in the 60s. It's been around recreationally
for nearly 150 years for "whatever ailed you" tonics, in cigarettes,
ointments and nasal sprays. Its use was perfectly legal until the federal government
classified it as a narcotic (which it is not) in 1914. After that it could only
be gotten legally by prescription or illegally from a "street dealer."
Cocaine is a powder which in "cooked" form is called "crack."
The law treats each very differently. The racist "mandatory minimum"
sentencing laws established by Congress in 1986 penalize crack users especially
harshly. Defendants convicted of selling 500 grams of powder cocaine vs. 5 grams
of crack each receive 5 year sentences. For 5 kilos of powder and 50 grams of
crack it's a 10 year sentence. That's a 100:1 ratio. Why? Hold on, there's more.
Simple possession of any amount of powder by a first-time offender is a misdemeanor
punishable by a max 1 year sentence. For crack, simple possession is a felony
carrying a 5 year sentence. Now to the why. Blacks accounted for 84% of convicted
crack offenders in 2000, Hispanics 9% and whites 6%. For powder it was Hispanics
- 50%, blacks - 30% and whites - 18%. Now you know. The federal crack laws established
20 years ago were part of the "Reagan revolution" and its racist war
against the poor, mainly blacks. It was also intended as a defense against those
least advantaged poor and mainly blacks as the "Reagan revolution"
began dismantling the social safety net and transferring wealth to the rich
and well-off. That transfer has now been ongoing for 25 years with no end in
sight. The "war on drugs" and its harsh laws, mainly targeting blacks,
were intended to defuse the inevitable pressure that would build among the poor
and black community and likely explode again in the streets as it did in the
60s. 2.1+ million people locked in cages is how this nation's leaders address
the gross social inequity problem it deliberately created. It's their solution,
and it's a national disgrace and outrage.
TORTURE IN US PRISONS - IT'S NOT JUST AT GUANTANAMO AND ABU GHRAIB
- IT'S RIGHT HERE IN THE USA
Surprised? The few who even think about this may be, but even many of them
shamefully believe all those locked up deserve the harsh treatment they get.
Aren't they sent there to be punished for committing crimes? Did they expect
a "country club?" Punishment is what they get big time because prisons
everywhere are brutal places, and those sent to them have no rights and it shows
in how they're treated - routinely. And let's be perfectly clear about the way
it is at all US domestic and foreign based prisons (and most all other countries'
as well): No, it doesn't just happen at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram near
Kandahar, Afghanistan; and no, it's not just by a few "rogue elements"
or "bad apples." What goes on is policy, and it comes right from the
top sanctioned and approved. And let's be very clear about one other thing.
The real criminals sit in corporate suites and boardrooms or in capitol hill
offices while their victims are locked in cages and subjected to unspeakable
abuse and brutal torture with no chance to stop it or receive redress.
Prisons, with few exceptions, are not intended for rehabilitation. They are
institutions societies use for vengeance and punishment. There are the most
gruesome hellholes around the world the US takes full advantage of just in the
prisoners it "renditions" for attempted information extraction by
some of the worst physical and psychological tortures the human mind can conceive.
But this essay is about what goes on in US prisons within our borders, and what
you'll read below will sound like reports about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Get
ready to feel your skin crawl.
Everything we saw on TV months ago about prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib (and
heard goes on at Guantanamo) happens in our state and federal prison system
right here at home and lots more we didn't see or hear about. These are the
lessons and techniques first devised and used in US based torture-prisons and
then exported for use in our comparable torture-prisons around the world. That's
the way things are in all our prisons, and in the language of author Gertrude
Stein when she referred to roses: a prison is a prison is a prison. The main
difference between San Quentin and Abu Ghraib is their location. What goes on
at both and all others includes savage beatings by prison guards; attacks by
fierce dogs that inflict real bites; severe shocking with cattle prods and 50,000
volt emitting Taser electro-shock guns often used multiple times that make the
victim shake for hours after being struck and can also kill and often do; assaults
by toxic chemicals like pepper spray strong enough to inflict severe pain, second
degree burns, temporary blindness, and even death in a vulnerable victim; and
all this happening at times with prisoners stripped naked including brutal rapes
by guards, other prisoners and much more.
A courageous woman activist imprisoned for several months for her actions told
me the case of a woman she saw stripped naked in her cell and then bound suspended
in spread-eagle form on her prison bars and left there for hours to suffer.
The experience devastated her and nearly killed her. And she was another activist
being punished for her courageous acts. Hard to believe? You'd better believe
it because it goes on every day in all prisons routinely throughout the country
- acts of deliberate barbarity and sadism, so severe they can and do kill and
often leave their victims an emotional shell when they don't. Whenever you hear
reports about prisoners committing suicide, you'd better think hard about it.
It's most likely they were murdered by prison guards and reported as suicide.
It may be from repeated Taser shocks, from being beaten to death so savagely
every rib in their body was broken or just from a body giving out from repeated
and brutal maltreatment over a long period with nothing more to look forward
to but more of the same. How many can endure the worst of that? No one in a
civilized country should ever have to. And no civilized person should believe
they had it coming.
HOW INTERNATIONAL LAW TREATS TORTURE
International law is explicit and long-standing forbidding the use of any form
of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment under any circumstances. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlawed it in 1948. The Fourth Geneva
Convention then did it in 1949 banning any form of "physical or mental
coercion" and affirming detainees must at all time be treated humanely.
The European Convention followed in 1950. Then in 1984 the UN Convention Against
Torture became the first binding international instrument dealing exclusively
with the issue of banning torture in any form for any reason. And let's be clear
on what's meant by torture and inhumane treatment. It includes punching a prisoner
or detainee in the mouth or kicking him or her in the stomach or butt.
Except for the non-binding "Universal Declaration", all the others
are binding international law, and the US is a signatory to the Fourth Geneva
Convention and the UN Convention. And hold on, there's more. The US War Crimes
Act of 1996 makes it a criminal offense for US military personnel and US nationals
to commit war crimes to include cruel treatment and torture covered under the
Fourth Geneva Convention. And virtually every human rights organization is on
the record banning all kinds of torture anywhere for any reason.
A BRIEF DIVERSION ON TORTURE OVERSEAS
I must include some important information about one type of torture that may
be only going on overseas - for now. Although the US is a signatory to the Geneva
Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, it's routinely ignored and
violated them with impunity in US prisons and abroad. Further, the CIA's use
of psychological torture was exempted in the UN Convention.
With cover from that exemption, Professor Alfred McCoy's new book - A Question
of Torture: CIA Interrogation From the Cold War to the War of Terror - exposes
the CIA's secret efforts to develop new forms of torture over that period. He
explained how they conducted intensive research to crack the code of human consciousness
and through much trial and error came up with human devastating psychological
and self-inflicting torture techniques - from sensory disorientation or the
severe pain from tortures like forced continuous standing for 24 - 48 hours.
The CIA experiments continue now at Guantanamo and other overseas hellhole
torture-prisons. But 2 new techniques have been added - cultural sensitivity
and individual fears and phobias. This four-fold assault on the human psyche
is now being used against prisoners held in overseas prisons, and the detainees
affected (most picked up randomly and guilty of no offense) are being used as
human "lab rats" in a gruesome, vile and clearly illegal and immoral
experiment to devise the most effective psychological techniques to break down
a human subject - to break a human being so totally it's near impossible to
I could find no information on if these experiments are now being conducted
in US domestic prisons. But that doesn't mean they're not. They may be happening
here, but we don't know about them. But the key point is this. Once the use
of torture in all forms gains currency, it's inevitable it will spread everywhere.
And let's be very clear on one other point. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005
(the so-called McCain Anti-Torture amendment) passed in December last year is
so full of loopholes and offsets by other legislation that it's worthless and
will do nothing to stop the tortures explained above.
THE DEATH PENALTY - THE "HEART OF DARKNESS" OF OUR CRIMINAL-INJUSTICE
Life in prison is a living hell for all those in one as all the victims know
who've been there or those of us who've read about it in detail as I have. Being
there is like being in one of the 5 levels of Dante's hell where those consigned
to spend eternity are doomed to eternal punishment.
All prisons are hellholes. But for those prisoners with any hope of release
one day, the second lowest level of Dante's hell is any of the so-called "supermax"
prisons. They're supposedly intended to house society's most dangerous, incorrigibly
violent inmates, but many sent there aren't that at all like the many political
prisoners consigned that fate because the state wishes to bury them alive and
keep them isolated. The number in these "special" hellholes are a
small but growing percent of the total prison population, and those in them
spend their waking and sleeping hours locked in small, often windowless, cells
for long sentences of many years. They're deprived of all contact with other
inmates and only allowed out for brief periods a few times a week for showers
and some solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space. They're deprived of all
mental stimulation from human contact, recreation or education, and are nearly
always shackled hands and feet and escorted by armed guards whenever they leave
their cells. Prisoners who've endured this torture, come out, and spoken publicly
about it have described it to be like living in a tomb. And the state inflicted
misery they've been subjected to often results in a host of severe emotional
problems including insanity. Try locking yourself in your bathroom with a little
plain food and water for 24 hours (if you can stand it) and see how you feel.
Then multiply that by 20 or more years.
The state and federally sponsored murder factories known as "death rows"
are, without a doubt, the lowest and worst level of Dante's hell. Dante might
have written his words "Abandon every hope, all ye who enter" for
the abandoned souls sent to these barbaric death factories. They only look different
than Auschwitz. Those entering never come out (except the few lucky ones DNA
evidence exonerate). As of April, 2005 there were 3452 on "death row"
in the 37 states with the death penalty including 36 in federal prisons and
7 held by the US military. The vast majority of them are poor or disadvantaged
and their racial breakdown is as follows: 45.5% white, 41.7% black, 10.4% Hispanic,
1.2% Asian, 1.2% American Indian and .5% unknown. Nearly all of them, 98.5%,
Most civilized countries have no death penalty, and in the Global North only
the US and Japan still do. Japan is very selective in who it executes, unlike
the US with its assembly line-like killing operations. The Japanese have executed
about 50 inmates in the last dozen years and about an equal number now await
execution. Many opponents of the death penalty call these "final solution"
acts institutionalized, state-sponsored, ritualistic acts of torture-murder.
They say "torture" because often the prisoner is so hated that their
executioners "deliberately" try to inflict pain during the process
of killing them. And while that alone is inhumane and barbaric enough, all too
often the accused is innocent, often the state knows it, and they're still put
to death. Most often these are people of color, most likely black, poor and
unable to afford a proper defense. They become victims of a system not based
on justice but on vengeance along with the belief by elected officials that
being "tough on crime" is a good vote getter.
The case of Stan "Tookie" Williams, as much as anyone, stands out
for its barbarity and gross injustice. Stan was a co-founder of the Crips street
gang as a teenager in South Central Los Angeles in 1969. He was convicted and
sentenced to death for multiple murders he said he never committed (I believe
him), but never got a proper defense to prove it. Even later when evidence became
known that might have exonerated him, he was never given a chance to prove his
Over a dozen years before his execution in California, Stan changed his life,
became an anti-gang activist while on death row, and renounced his former gang
affiliation. He co-wrote children's books, worked to convince youths not to
join gangs and wrote one of the most compelling books on prison life I ever
read called Life in Prison. He did it to show readers what prison life is really
like in plain, stark language. He pulled no punches. Anyone reading it will
know that prison is no place any human being wants to be.
For his work in prison, Stan received multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations,
in 2004 a feature film called Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story was
made about his life, and as his execution date approached, a mass effort I was
part of was launched to urge an uncaring and hostile Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
to grant clemency. Fat chance. Thousands joined the effort including celebrities,
politicians, Nobel laureates and Pacifica Radio, especially on its very special
bold and courageous KPFA weekday news and information program Flashpoints Radio
(the best program of its kind anywhere). It was all in vein, clemency was denied
and Stan was put to death by lethal injection on December 13, 2005 as thousands
protested outside the infamous San Quentin State Prison. Stan's death was not
easy or painless. It took repeated needle insertions in a process that took
nearly 30 minutes of great inflicted pain to complete. Stan's suffering at the
end was not an exception. It's common practice, and as mentioned above, is deliberately
inflicted by a sadistic staff. As such, even for a prisoner being executed,
this is a flagrant violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that
prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." But who cares and who will
act to prevent it when it's inflicted on a condemned black man and on the day
the state murders him.
THE PROFITABLE BUSINESS OF RUNNING A GULAG
The for-profit side of running a gulag began to explode during the Reagan years
when incarceration rates began increasing dramatically. Along with a growing
private prisons industry (a small slice of the prison pie still largely a public
enterprise), a vast array of private businesses wanted a piece of the action
and got it. These include architectural and construction companies; food service
contractors; all sorts of equipment, hardware and other suppliers of steel doors,
razor wire, communications systems, and health care and medical supplies. There's
also a big need for uniforms and assorted weapons including dangerous products
to restrain like clemical sprays that can injure, cause severe pain, second
degree burns, temporary blindness or worse and taser electro-shock guns that
emit 50,000 volts of electricity (enough to flatten an all-pro NFL lineman in
peak form) that can and have killed as many as 167 victims from it's use through
January, 2006. And there's loads more. The (mal) care and feeding of a couple
of million humans takes a lot of supplying to keep the system going. Add it
all up and it's big business, and it gets bigger with every new prison and the
inmates to fill them. Not to worry. Unlike oil, there's no chance of running
The big players in this growing industry are the private companies that run
the hellholes. And the ones they run are even more hellish than the public ones.
Private, publicly owned corporations with shareholders and Wall Street to please
always need a growing revenue and profit stream and strict cost control to maximize
the bottom line part of it. That means understaffing, low pay for poorly trained
staff, poor and unsafe conditions, little or no life-enhancing or self-help
programs like educational opportunities or counseling services to rehabilitate
those in need like ilicit drug users, and even worse medical care than the third
world kind in the publicly run system. Why bother, they all cost money, reduce
profits and constrain shareholder equity. Private contractors can also exploit
prisoners as de facto chattel. They're not obliged to pay wages or benefits
and can take full advantage of all those bodies free of charge. Why would they
ever pass that up. It's one more revenue and profit stream.
The private side of running prisons is still a small part of the total. But
it's growing, and as it does, it's darker side may just get darker. Unlike most
businesses, quality control is not one of their concerns. If humans suffer to
enhance the bottom line, who will care. In running a gulag, you just gotta keep
'em under control locked in cages, and if you use, abuse and lose some along
the way, there's plenty more supply to fill the available beds. That's how it
works in a nation that commodifies its masses and exploits them. It's what happens
in this modern era when social conditions deteriorate enough to produce what
Franklin Roosevelt spoke about in the Great Depression years of the 1930s when
he said "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."
It's not that bad yet, but we're heading in that direction. As discussed above,
it produces a restive population the state chooses to lock up in lieu of providing
vital social services to satisfy essential needs. The result is the US gulag,
the shame of the nation. Future historians and others will judge us by the character
of our social conscience, especially how we treat our least advantaged and most
needy. They'll also judge us by our system of justice and the prisons within
it which reflect that conscience. The honest ones won't be kind. The great Russian
19th century novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, once remarked that he measured the
quality of a society by the quality of its prisons. He might have added by its
quantity as well.
THE EVIDENCE SHOWS A NATION MOVING FROM A REPUBLIC TO TYRANNY
The evidence on our criminal injustice system and prisons within it alone shows
a nation moving from a republic to tyranny. It's not much different from what
happened in ancient Rome when it passed from a republic to an empire under the
rule of its emperor Augustus Caesar after Julius ignored his "Ides of March"
warning and ended his reign the hard way in the Roman Senate.
Our prison system alone is a stark symbol and reminder of a society based on
militarism and imperial conquest abroad, the shredding of our civil liberties
at home, and the dismantling of our social contract obligation along with the
transfer of wealth to the privileged and powerful. It reflects a nation descending
into the hell of tyranny and despotism that threatens to become worse and affect
us all except those at the top. We've created the monster of a national security
police state (run by the new Department of Homeland Security and Office of the
Director of National Intelligence) to control a growing restive population that
will likely grow larger. It will include many more of us as those in need grow
in numbers and new demons are easily found, targeted and moved to prison cells
to maintain absolute control. That's how it works in all tyrannical states,
even ones claiming to be democracies like ours but which, in fact, are not.
It happened in ancient Rome and in more modern times in Nazi Germany after
Hitler was appointed Chancellor and ended the Weimar Republic. He called his
party the National Socialist German Workers Party (the term Nazi is the short
form for National Socialist with a "zi" on the end), but his constituents
were the German industrialists and militarists and his ideology was fascist
and racist. It wasn't long before he removed his many enemies and tried to create
a state for the privileged and Aryian pure. The immortal words of Pastor Martin
Niemoller explained it and warns us now when he said they first came for the
Jews, then the Communists, then the trade unionists and each time he didn't
speak out because he wasn't one of them - until there was no one left and they
came for him, and there was no one to speak out to help him.
This essay only addresses the mass incarceration of the most vulnerable among
us. I've discussed the other issues in other writings and intend to write solely
about our war on immigrants in a future article. But unless we heed Pastor Niemoller's
warning, one day, sooner than we think, they'll come for us and who'll be left
to help. Based on the evidence I've presented we already have a society out
of control with a reckless rogue administration, a "go-along" Congress
and "friendly" courts leading us along the road to hell.
The US prison system is its metaphor and clear warning and reflects a repressive
state based on harsh and unjust Patriot Act laws that are close to being supplemented
by a racist, fascist-style immigration bill passed by the House (the so-called
Sensenbrenner anti-immigration bill) and now being considered in the Senate.
Its provisions that criminalize undocumented immigrants (targeted at those of
color) and all those compassionate enough who help them are right out of the
bowels of Nazi hell. It may pass and likely be followed by even more repressive
laws that target you and me unless we're one of the privileged. So far, the
targets are mostly those on the bottom rungs of society - people of color including
immigrants and Muslims. But also in the line of fire is anyone of influence
(including Muslim academics falsely labeled terrorists) daring to speak out
and oppose state policy. How long will it be before it gets even worse and no
one is safe?
Few people know the president has now given himself the sole power to designate
anyone he chooses for any reason he decides a "bad guy" - incredibly
in that language. Going even further, in January, 2006, George Bush claimed
the right to govern as a "Unitary Executive" with the power to abrogate
the separation of powers doctrine, bypass the Congress and courts and act as
he chooses to "protect national security." This simply means if he
decides to ignore the law he'll govern by presidential edict usurping the right
of dictatorial power with no constraint. If he's ever brazen enough to do it
(and don't believe he won't be) and isn't stopped, he'll have "crossed
the Rubicon" and turned the country into a full-blown totalitarian state
and the ball game is over for all of us. We're already all in the queue as potential
prey, and we'd better understand we're moving up in it fast. Unless Bush-Cheney
and those around them are stopped, they'll come for us one day, and then it'll
be too late. It makes a shameless mockery of any notion that all citizens, rich
and poor, are entitled to the sacred rights and protections guaranteed us by
the Constitution. Only the privileged and powerful get that right today, not
the rest of us. And if you're black and poor, an undocumented immigrant or a
Muslim of color (our latest public enemy No. 1), you have no rights at all.
Step right up, they've assigned you a number too, and you'd better keep a bag
We've come a long way in our 230 year history but, except for brief periods
of relief and redress, it's been pretty much downhill. If that's "the American
way", it's time we retool and find a new path to follow, one based on social,
political and economic justice, of caring about all others instead of using
and abusing them for the benefit of a privileged few. We may not have much time
left, so we better wake up and move fast. If we keep watching Fox News, read
the New York Times, listen to NPR and then run to the mall, we're doomed to
meet the same fate as all other nations who followed the road we now travel.
It's the road to hell, and ours isn't even paved with good intentions.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached
Also visit his blog address at http://www.sjlendman.blogspot.com/