Hard Time

There’s a wild look a man gets in his eyes when he has just been released from prison. I saw it one time, sitting in a booth at a nightclub along Highway 99 in Seattle. This guy I’d never seen before comes walking in with a couple of buddies, and the difference was immediately apparent to me between those who have been here all along and the one who just got back.

The first thing you notice is the muscles. A lot of guys pass the time behind bars working out, both for something to do and to build a rep for safety. There are no tanning beds in prison, so you see the combination of build and pallor that accompanies too much time in the gym and not enough in the yard. But mostly, you see it in his eyes.

The eyes of a recently paroled man look out into a world at once familiar and bizarre, the more complicated depending on the number of years in stir behind the parolee. Things have changed, and a common pleasure like stopping into a bar for a beer with your buddies becomes a born again experience. Add to that the element of prohibition, caused by the requirements often imposed on one’s life by the Corrections Department — don’t hang around with any of your friends any more, and don’t do drugs or alcohol any more, or go any of the places you used to go anymore — and you can sense the feeling of life about to burst a seam in the man. On top of that, there is the pressure of “Get a Job Right Now” — even though nobody will hire you, because you’re a convict. It’s a recipe for recidivism, a term invented to describe the likelihood that a released con will soon be back behind bars. The fact that we even need such a term is clear evidence that our system of “corrections” has failed, or was never intended to do anything else.

According to one article from 2008, cited here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289 the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of our population than anyone else in the world. Also noted is that private, for-profit prisons have increased dramatically, from only 5 in 1998 to 100 in 2008, and that most of them sell their inmates’ labor to private companies for profit as well as receive tax dollars to incarcerate them. It is also clear that the populations of these profit making ventures, the two-bits an hour laborers supplied by Police and Prosecution Departments all over the country, are mostly Black and Latino by a wide margin.

And it should come as no surprise that many of the versions of “tough on crime”, “Truth in sentencing”, and “mandatory minimum sentences” that have greatly increased the populations of prisons everywhere are spoon fed to legislators, both at the state and federal level, by a lobbying organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization partly supported by the companies that run private prisons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prison has more information on this topic.

There’s something about America, and our fundamentalist Bible Belt mentality that demands that bad people must suffer for their sins, even as we define as a sin anything that offends our pulpit pounding strictures to live by Old Testament rules and ignore the true costs of such a stance.

Take prostitution, for example. The World’s Oldest Profession, as it is known, has been responsible for millions of wasted dollars and lives for as long as we can remember, and only because we believe it is a sin. In reality, the only sin comes from the abuses encouraged by illegality, such as exploitative pimps, child abuse, runaways, and disease. What if pimping remained a crime of exploitation while we accepted prostitution as a reality in a world where not everyone can find the love they need? How much would we save as a society if men and women were allowed to ply their trade of love for sale in a safe, healthy, well lit environment with full access to health care and the ability to keep the vast majority of their earnings for themselves, like any other professional? Think about that.

Think about drugs, as well. Think about the differences in the penalties for possession of marijuana in Colorado, Washington and Oregon compared with Mississippi or Alabama or Florida. Take a look at who gets busted for drugs, and where they get shipped to serve their time, and ask yourself who profits from their losses. Again, what if we removed the production and distribution of all the common drugs favored by addicts and abusers, the heroin, the methamphetamines, Oxycontin in all its flavors (thank you, Germany, 1917), and even that pleasant little herb, cannabis sativa, from the Black Market and brought them out into the open to be taxed, regulated and controlled? This process has already started for marijuana, because it has simply become too much of a stretch to continue to pretend that pot belongs in the same category of “dangerous drugs” as the rest of the fatal overdose types, and there is way too much money avoiding taxation worldwide to be allowed to continue. The current struggle is over who will get all that money as the powers that be try to freeze out those organizations that already have distribution networks in place and keep the money for themselves. Imagine what a few more years will bring, as entire countries follow the example of Uruguay and legalize it.

Two things are slowing this progress: the Bible Belt mentality that says I’m against anything my Preacher says I should be against (never mind that hashish came from God along with wheat and soy and wine grapes) and a concerted lobbying effort by the same companies around the world that are making profits by incarcerating non-violent drug offenders and are acting to preserve the cash flow supplied by our tax dollars and our penal code.

This is where my fundamental Libertarianism takes effect. While I recognize that many drugs used for recreational purposes are devastating and destroy lives, as became evident to anyone growing up in the White Center area in the ’60s and ’70s when the influx of injectable drugs came in like a wave of poison gas on a community and left a residue of bodies, broken homes and jail time in its wake, it still boils down to me to be a personal choice made by an individual that brings down on that individual (and their families and the other victims of their bad behavior, unfortunately) the results of that choice. As a society, we do not benefit by putting the surviving individuals behind bars, and we fool ourselves if we think we are somehow going to keep them from the same bad behavior when we let them out. It works the same when we try to constrain every member of a group because of the behavior of some in that group. It is only when we get to the root causes of that behavior, when we answer the question of why it makes sense at the time to shoot that load of dope into your veins, or to get a gun and rob the corner store so you can afford to pay your man what you owe, that we will begin to make a change in our society for the better. Think about all the money we’ll save when we do. Legalization of all the “victimless” crimes is a good place to start. It’s called “thinking outside the box”, and in this case the box is a coffin. :-{)}