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"The treatment of prisoners is a good indicator of how civilized a society is."
Winston Churchill

I've been thinking so much about imprisonment lately. I've always had a certain morbid fascination with the death penalty, the US penal system, and torture. Even as a kid, I would have long tortured sessions of thought wondering what I would do if I were physically tortured to give up information that would harm someone I loved. I wondered if I could handle the pain...and guessed that I probably could not. The idea of the damage to my body sickened me.

I remember the day about 10 years ago that I picked up Loompanics Press' You Are Going to Prison, and it's sickening accounts of the inevitable brutal combat and vicious sexual assault situations in US state and federal lockup. I remember I gave a passage to a young girlfriend of mine at the time, and she was so shaken up by it that she brought it up as one of the reasons she broke up with me. I wish I would have kept it to myself, but I was so disturbed and just wanted to share the experience with someone somehow.

Just recently it entered my mind again vividly as I found out that a friend of mine is facing life in prison under the three strikes laws. Again I started reading about prison and obsessing about how I would handle myself in a situation where one can easily be forced to "fuck or fight" to minimize brutal assault and sexual slavery.

I don't do anything that would get me sent to prison, but so many people who go to prison are just regular guys like me who made one error in judgement. I do my best to make choices that don't put me in that universe, but one can never be sure. Once you make the mistake you can't take it back. They come get you physically and detain you, they make a decision which is beyond your power, and if you are convicted you lose your ability to be considered a human being in our society.

Looking for information I read the Human Rights Watch information about prisons, and with great pain, the report on male rape in US prisons, and a numbness crept over me. It just seems like there has to be a better way. I am not that naive...I know that to some extent it's this population of human beings creating their own problem. And there's so much money to be made from incarceration that it's difficult to expect meaningful change that would really be in society's best interests. I am not trying to be some kind of bleeding heart liberal and say, "Oh, if we just realized how much these people are hurting and treat them better and give them a nice pat on the head each day and tell them what a good person they are, then they will stop being such bad boys and they will exude sunshine from their pores."

At the same time...I just think there has to be a better way. To non-naively invest in these people's lives, and by proxy the lives of everyone. How can we think we can just cut off 2.8% of the US population from our caring or consideration and somehow it doesn't cheapen us as human beings?

There are voices of sanity. There are organizations that try to make some kind of difference. Like the Prison Dharma Network, Amnesty International, the Prison Book Program, and Human Rights Watch.

Just recently I found a little comfort in the amazing weblog of Shaun Attwood, Jon's Jail Journal which he writes from prison using a ballpoint pen refill. His level of humor about his situation has somehow chilled me out a little, and it seems a little less painful to hear that there's some skinny white boy out there making it without getting too fucked up. The BBC has written a couple of articles about him, which are a good summary if you don't feel like reading his whole weblog. I'm working my way through it and enjoying every word.


And there's so much money to be made from incarceration that it's difficult to expect meaningful change that would really be in society's best interests.

You're right - in fact completely the opposite is certain. What money is there to be made in giving prisoners a good life? None whatsoever.

My fiance is studying this right now. Have you checked out Mumia Abu-Jamal on prisonradio.org?

You'll probably be surprised that I agree with you.... to a point.

I am completely against three strike laws, for the simple and pragmatic reason that I'd rather see someone who committed a rape or murder spend life in prison before someone who got caught with a felony amount of weed or stole a car three times (or twenty times for that matter).

Instead far too many violent monsters are released early to make room for people with multiple non-violent felonies. Combine that with politicians of both aisles making more and more asinine laws that turn citizens into felons for idiotic reasons (if McCain-Feingold eventually extends to blogs, you'll be adding me to that number) and it's almost impossible to go about your day without breaking some damn law you've never heard of.

I disagree with your assesment that there's profit in incarceration. On a very local scale (IE: The building contractors, jobs, and services needed around the physical location of the prison) you're right.

But those funds don't come out of thin air, they come from our taxes.
As violent predators are cycled in and out of the system and the politicians keep making more and more things illegal to show that they're "Tough on crime" it sucks more and more money from the American citizen's pockets which could be put to better use (of course you'd probably say for social issues, while I'd say a better use would be to stay in my frickin' bank account....). That, along with turning redeemable criminals into hardnened monsters inside the prisons then turning them loose, costs far too much to society in dollars and blood.

I probably have a lot less sympathy for violent offenders than you do, but I'm not going to start that argument (I almost ended our damn friendship over political shit, and I don't want to go back to that place). There's no way someone should spend life in jail unless they commit the most heinous of crimes against another human being. In cases of premeditated murder where the evidence is overwhelming, I think capital punishment is appropriate.

I'm mellowing. I resisted the urge to go off on a three page rant about exactly what I think about Mumia.
Before you know it I'll be wearing hemp and eating tofu....

I read You Are Going to Prison almost ten years ago too. I picked it up at Twice Sold Tales and read it cover to cover. It may have had some extra fascination for me because I was living in the drug house at the time.

More recently I read the autobiography of the man who played "Mr. Blue" in Resevoir dogs, Edward Bunker. He was a career criminal through the 50s and 60s and does an excellent job of noting the changes in the prison systems in the US during those times...increasing racism, etc. It's a fascinating read: Education of a Felon.

This is a topic I find very interesting. Good essay.

I have often spent a lot of time asking myself what I would do in prison, too, and having the feeling that I could fall through the cracks by chance, even now when I am pretty harmless.

I guess we all obsess about the potential loss of freedom, which is what keeps most of us out. I remember when I was a little pup and we were having one of our famous day-long wanders and you pointed out to me the fact that the police and cop cars are designed to intimidate...the lights, the loudspeakers, etc. I was glad you said that.

Thanks for commenting, you guys. This had gotten in my head so deeply over the past few days that I knew I had to write about it.