Sometimes events conspire to make you think that things are worse than you imagined. On August 3, Marilyn Buck died. Marilyn was a fighter in the struggle for racial justice and against the most virulent pestilence in the world—United States imperialism. Unlike most of us, she put her money where her mouth was and her life on the line. It is easy now to forget that the agents of repression—the police, the FBI, the courts, the government itself—consciously and actively targeted those who were active in and led the civil rights and Vietnam war resistance movements. They infiltrated and acted as provocateurs in movement organizations; they arrested innocent people; they enacted and enforced draconian laws; they illegally tapped phones and spied on any and all persons suspected of “subversive” activity; and they tortured and murdered those who they deemed to be the most dangerous radicals.
Whites like Marilyn who militantly supported black liberation were high on the list of suspects. She was arrested in 1973 for buying (legal) arms under a false name. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, and during a furlough to consult with her lawyers in 1977, she went underground. She was arrested again in 1983, accused of multiple crimes—aiding the prison break of Asata Shakur, planning and participating in several bombings of public facilities, and taking part in the infamous Brinks robbery of 1981 in which a guard and two policemen were killed. She was convicted and sentenced to eighty years in prison.
While incarcerated, Marilyn earned college degrees, became a poet and writer of distinction, mentored many prisoners, fought for the rights of those behind bars, and continued as an activist in the battles that defined her before her imprisonment. Finally scheduled for parole, she discovered that she had cancer. Treatment failed and she died at home, having been released a few weeks early because of her failing health. She was sixty-two years old.
This bare bones sketch hardly does justice to her life or what she endured in prison. In an interview published in Monthly Review in 2001, here is how answer to a question about how prison time had affected her personally:
Imagine yourself in a relationship with an abuser who controls your every move, keeps you locked in the house. There’s the ever-present threat of violence or further repression if you don’t toe the line. I think that’s a fairly good analogy of what happens. And imagine being there for fifteen years.
To be punished, to be absolutely controlled, whether it’s about buttoning your shirt; how you have a scarf on your head; how long or how baggy your pants are—all of those things are under scrutiny. It’s hard to give a clinical picture of what they do, because how do you know, when you’re the target, or the victim, what that does to you? But theres a difference between being a target and being a victim.
Like most prisoners, she was not allowed to attend her mother’s funeral. From the same interview:
My mother died about six weeks ago. She became ill in September, so I went through a phase of real guilt that I wasn’t there. And real sorrow and real anger. I think I’ve looked at the guilt a little more. I just couldn’t be there. But the sorrow of not being able to hold my mother’s little bird hand by the time she was starving to death from the cancer … just breaks my heart. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
I could intellectualize it. I could have been on a ship halfway around the world, and we got stuck in the trade winds and couldn’t get there in time. But I’m an extreme realist and understand who I am as a political prisoner. I knew that I would not be allowed to go to her bedside, nor to her funeral. That was just the reality. She died on a Sunday. And she was buried on my birthday. So it’s just all very hard.
I talked to my mother every week I could. And she came to visit me once a year. It was hard for her to get here. My mom was seventy-four She had to drive a long way and go through all the emotional turmoil that you can’t avoid when you see somebody you can’t do anything for. So I had to look at her anger, too.
In a certain way, I want to be able to lie on the floor and bang my heels and cry and scream, but that just hurts my heels…So what can I say? I’m having a hard time. I’m having a very, very hard time. I…you know, it’s grief. But it’s grief under dire conditions. I’ll always miss my mother.
A few days after Marilyn Buck’s death, I received the current print edition of the CounterPunch newsletter. In it there is an astonishing article by journalist JoAnn Wypijewski. The title is “Defending the 700,000 Most Despised People in America,” and it describes efforts by the mothers of accused and prosecuted sex offenders to get our draconian sex offender laws changed.
JoAnn interviews several mothers, and their stories of what has been done to their sons are heartrending. A typical scenario unfolds like this. Local cops troll internet chat rooms posing as young girls and boys. An adult, usually a young man, says he is looking for female friendship. The cop then does everything possible to seduce the man into coming to his or her house, presumably for sex. If the young man resists, the decoy uses explicitly sexual language to entice him. If he succumbs and goes to the house, vice cops are waiting. What follows then is a nightmare of arrest, sensationalist stories in local—and sometimes national— media (fed to them by ambitious district attorneys), expensive and often corrupt lawyers, extreme family and financial stress, a plea bargain, probation and counseling (paid for by the young man or his family), community service, a lifetime as a registered sex offender, and the most invasive and incredible set of rules and regulations, which must be obeyed to the letter under threat of more or less permanent probation or prison. These include regular breathalizer, urine, and lie detector tests, for which the “offender” must pay. All for an absolutely victimless “crime.” After a mother tells Wypijewski that her son must have a “safety plan,” approved by the probation officer before going anywhere, there is this exchange:
JW: So, say, I will be brought to the appointment by an adult in a car and if a child comes in I’ll run down to the parking lot and sit in the car until the kid is gone?
D: That kind of thing.
S: You have no idea how inhumane. Tell her about that test, D.; what’s it called – plasmo-something?
D: You go into a room with an examiner. They hook your penis up to a monitor. They show you pictures of women in different states of dress, and they monitor the flow of blood in your penis. My son’s test came back as “inconclusive.” It didn’t show that he had any sexual deviance, but it didn’t show that he didn’t either. So the recommendation was that he go to therapy to learn to manage his sexual deviance, and to learn the patterns of his sexual deviance.
There are even court-imposed fines for the “victims” of the sex offender, despite the fact that there were no victims.
I was interested to note that one of the states singled out in the article as having especially harsh laws is Colorado, where we have lived. Here decades of right-wing religious fervor and vicious radio talk show jockeying have borne fruit for those hoping for a police state before they die.
Not long after I read JoAnn’s essay, we went to the huge Goodwill store on West Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon to buy a few things for cooking in our apartment. Portlanders love their many thrift shops, and, like this one, they’re always crowded. Karen was looking for pans and saw a young man holding a small plate and looking on the shelves next to her. She said to him, “There’s a lot of stuff here.” He said that he was looking for a plate but could only afford one. Karen suggested that he get something larger, since a large plate could do what a small one could and more. She asked about a glass, and he said that he had a plastic cup. Karen said that it would be nicer to drink from a real glass. When it was evident that he had little money, Karen gave him enough to cover the plate and a glass. He thanked her and went to the checkout counter. A few minutes later, we took our items to the same counter and found ourselves behind him. He had a few items on the counter and a voucher for thirty dollars to pay for them, plus the two dollars he got from Karen. He had calculated closely and had just enough money. When the clerk couldn’t figure out whether to take the cash first or the voucher, we spent a few minutes talking to the young man. He had just gotten out of prison and was staying at a halfway house for ninety days. The $30 was the state’s “start a new life fund.” It didn’t go very far. He said that he was going to school to become a chef, and the state was going to pay. We gave him $20, as much encouragement as we could, and wished him luck. The clerk finally rang him up. He opened his backpack and tried to get his new possessions into it. As he rearranged his pack, we saw a package of cheese and some other food items he had bought for his supper.
While were talking, a man joined the line behind me. He looked a little more street-worn than our new friend. He had been listening in on our conversation, and he asked me, “Did that guy say he just got out of prison?” “Yes,” I said. “What did he do? I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. He doesn’t look like someone whose been there.” I said that I hadn’t asked him and that maybe you couldn’t always tell if someone had been in jail. He then began to complain about his shoulder. He showed me a lump on his collarbone. It looked broken, and I told him he should consider going to an emergency room, he said that he owed hospitals too much money already. “At least, put your arm in a sling,” I said. He wrapped a shirt around his neck and arm and said, “Yeah, that helps.” He began to fumble with the items he was buying , mostly clothes. Then he got out his $30 voucher. I offered him some money, but he said he didn’t need any. I stuffed some bills in his gym bag and said, “Take this anyway.”
7.3 million adults in the United States are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. A 2009 Pew Charitable trusts report fleshes out the details of this horrifying number tells us that:
–One in 31 adults in America is in prison or jail, or on probation or parole. Twenty-five years ago, the rate was 1 in 77.
–Overall, two-thirds of offenders are in the community, not behind bars. 1 in 45 adults is on probation or parole and 1 in 100 is in prison or jail. The proportion of offenders behind bars versus in the community has changed very little over the past 25 years, despite the addition of 1.1 million prison beds.
–Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography: 1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7 percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent) versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent). The rates can be extremely high in certain neighborhoods. In one block-group of Detroit’s East Side, for example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control.
–Georgia, where 1 in 13 adults is behind bars or under community supervision, leads the top five states that also include Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia.
Without a doubt, most of those enmeshed in the (in)justice system are not dangers to society and would not have been in it at all in a society that wasn’t so racist and so shot through with every kind of social and economic inequality. Unfortunately, whatever the reasons why so many men and women have been denied their freedom, once the numbers began to rise dramatically, constituencies came into being—lawyers, police, probation officers, prison guards and staff, drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselors, sex offender counselors, vendors of all sorts, clerks and other clerical support staff, court officers, judges, community service employers—that have a strong stake in milking the new cash cow. Given that inequality will continue to increase, that good jobs will be ever harder to find, that towns and cities will be strapped for funds into the indefinite future, that social unrest is likely to rise, that racism is not abating, don’t look for the criminal (in)justice system to shrink anytime soon.
Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class. He encourages correspondence and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.