• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

Why We Shouldn’t Wish Jail on People

While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
― Eugene V. Debs

Way too often I hear somebody wishing that a particular person get thrown in jail, or get a longer sentence, or not be released from prison. I know it can be a figure of speech to say that a person “belongs behind bars” but it’s meant literally too. The target might be a person in the news, or a neighbor, or a politician, but it doesn’t matter. Treating the issue of imprisonment in the US either flippantly or with unthinking acceptance is dangerous.

Given that the USA incarcerates more people than any other nation, perhaps we could claim that we are uniquely qualified here to judge the institution? I don’t know about that, but let’s take a closer look.

It’s worth dwelling on the US ranking for a moment, because it’s actually two #1s: raw number of prisoners and percentage of population imprisoned; that is, both the highest total and the highest rate. On the planet. According to data collected by the World Prison Brief, the US has 2,121,600 people in jail, which is a rate of 655 per 100,000 people. That’s ten times the rate of Nepal, five times that of Bulgaria, and double that of Brazil.

The country with the second highest number of prisoners, China, at 1,649,804, has a far lower incarceration rate of 118 per 100,000, due to their much larger population. The US does not compare favorably with perennial “enemies” Russia (316) and Iran (284), nor with neighbors Canada (114) and Mexico (164). The closest runners-up are El Salvador (604) and Turkmenistan (552), which is nearly 20% lower. By the numbers, then, the position of the US is stark.

But even if we reformed our system so that our numbers were not so far out of whack with everybody else, that would not solve our prison problem.

We cannot mention incarceration in the USA without talking about race. Blacks are a little over 13% of the population but make up nearly four in ten (38.5%) of the people in federal and state prisons. Blacks are more than five times as likely as Whites to be jailed. In eleven states, Blacks make up over half the prison population [stats]. Hispanics are close to twice as likely as Whites to be imprisoned [stats].

The “justice” system is racist in its application at every level from federal to state to county to municipal, virtually everywhere. Systemic discrimination is meted out by legislators, judges, cops, and anyone else in a position of authority. This is not debatable.

But even if we reformed our system so that the share of each race in jail exactly matched their share of the population, that would not solve our prison problem.

Regardless of color, the system is unfair. We have cash bailmandatory sentencing, and defendants denied their right to a jury by being forced to make plea bargains. These mechanisms lock people up just for being money poor, prevent judges from using judgment, and result in the innocent losing their freedom or even their lives. Add class to race as a factor in your chance of being incarcerated.

But even if we reformed our system to eliminate its bias in favor of monetary wealth, that would not solve our prison problem.

About 9 percent of all people incarcerated in the US are held in privately run facilities. Of federal prisoners, it’s 19%, and of immigrants detained by ICE, a whopping 75%. Privately-run prisons have proven problematic for a number of reasons, not the least being more incidents of violence. The bottom line is that they are beholden first to their shareholders, not the the public and there is no incentive to be concerned about justice. Adding extra time to a prisoner’s sentence for rule infractions, for example, prolongs the revenue stream produced by that prisoner. It should come as no surprise that the industry regularly lobbies for harsher sentencing. Profit as a motive for taking away people’s liberty is a true perversity. [For more, see: Mother Jones | The Week | the ACLU.]

But even if we reformed our system to forbid private ownership, that would not solve our prison problem.

Most US Americans believe that slavery is illegal in this country, but that is incorrect. The Thirteenth Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except for criminals, in other words. Because of this clause, prisoners are a class of workers to whom labor laws like minimum wage do not apply. Hourly pay can be as low as 9¢―nine cents!―and the average nationwide high is $1.41. Totally unpaid labor can be required at the threat of solitary confinement or other punishments [stats].

But even if we reformed our system to abolish slavery and extend standard worker protections to prisoners, that would not solve our prison problem.

The only way to solve our prison problem is to abolish our prisons.

The idea might sound crazy at first, but it’s not. Prisons as we know them were not instituted until the 1800s, and the high rate of incarceration dates to the 1980s. That is to say, in the scope of history, our current institution is a recent invention, not some old sacred tradition. It was an experiment to begin with and it now has demonstrated its own failure. Time to move on.

“But what will replace prisons?”

There’s not a one-word answer to that. But I turn to activist Angela Davis, who wrote a book on the topic, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, and she advises:

It is true that if we focus myopically on the existing system… it is very hard to imagine a structurally similar system capable of handling such a vast population of lawbreakers. If, however, we shift our attention from the prison, perceived as an isolated institution, to the set of relationships that comprise the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think about alternatives. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options that if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system [p. 106].

She then goes on to say:

[P]ositing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to re-envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment―demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. The creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space now occupied by the prison can eventually start to crowd out the prison so that it would inhabit increasingly smaller areas of our social and psychic landscape [pp. 107-108].

She is not proposing an overnight transition. Regardless, the approach is genuinely radical in that it seeks to root out the current system, not merely trim it back. Disease runs deep in the bones of this thing; dressing it up differently won’t help. It just has to go.

That task might appear daunting from some perspectives. But once a ball gets rolling, there’s no telling how fast it might move. Social movements (destructive as well as creative) can and do reach tipping points that spark dramatic transformations. That’s why we must dedicate ourselves to the good ones even if the odds seem hopeless. Because we never really know. Especially in these increasingly unpredictable times.

Returning to the Debs quotation―”while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”―this was not merely the rhetoric of solidarity; he was also stating a fact. The degree to which we limit the freedom of others is the degree to which we constrain ourselves, too, in “our social and psychic landscape.” This is how the collective nature of human society functions: institutional actions against individuals affect entire communities. Or as another socialist, David C. Coates, put it: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

We can choose to act with cruelty or with compassion, and those choices make us into the people we are―individually and collectively. How did we get those concentration camps on the border? By choosing cruelty over compassion time and time again―individually and collectively.

Wishing jail on people is an expression of cruelty. The sooner we break that habit―and see the chains that bind us all―the better.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press

May 28, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War on Arms Control and Disarmament
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Virtues of Not Eating Animals
Jeffrey St. Clair
Last Stand in the Big Woods
Jack Rasmus
Two Fictions of Mainstream Economics
Marshall Sahlins
State Terrorism
Louisa Willcox
“What Are We Fighting About?” 9th Circuit Hears Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisting Case
Danny Sjursen
The Future of Forever War, American-Style
Steven Salaita
To Students and Teachers Targeted by the Israel Lobby
David Rosen
Silence=Death: Larry Kramer, RIP
Dean Baker
Restaurants in the Pandemic
Martin Billheimer
There is No Vacation Anymore
Jesse Jackson
It’s Time for Bold Responses to a Stark Crisis
Deborah Toler
Is Stacey Abrams Progressive?
Binoy Kampmark
Budget Cockups in the Time of Coronavirus
May 27, 2020
Ipek S. Burnett
The Irony of American Freedom 
Paul Street
Life in Hell: Online Teaching
Vijay Prashad
Why Iran’s Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Are Sending Shudders Through Washington
Lawrence Davidson
National Values: Reality or Propaganda?
Ramzy Baroud
Why Does Israel Celebrate Its Terrorists: Ben Uliel and the Murder of the Dawabsheh Family
Sam Pizzigati
The Inefficient and Incredibly Lucrative Coronavirus Vaccine Race
Mark Ashwill
Vietnam Criticized for Its First-Round Victory Over COVID-19
David Rovics
A Note from the Ministry of Staple Guns
Binoy Kampmark
One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor
Nino Pagliccia
Canada’s Seat at the UN Security Council May be Coveted But is Far From a Sure Bet
Erik Molvar
Should Federal Public Lands be Prioritized for Renewable Energy Development?
R. G. Davis
Fascism: Is it Too Extreme a Label?
Gene Glickman
A Comradely Letter: What’s a Progressive to Do?
Jonathan Power
The Attacks on China Must Stop
John Kendall Hawkins
The Asian Pivot
May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution