Empire’s Prisoners

by Anita Seth

Most of us do not often consider the plight of incarcerated people in America. We are often concerned only with due process, particularly in those terrible situations where an innocent person is imprisoned for a crime that he or she did not commit. But that concern alone does not make us champions for human rights – certainly not in a country where just 3 percent of the world’s population lives, but where one quarter of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated. We must question the entire system of punishment, and protect the rights even of those who are guilty.

At a recent social gathering, I listened to a circle of friends talk about their volunteer service at nearby prisons. Peter and Betty Michelozzi, both in their 80s, teach yoga and meditation at a men’s prison. Bruce Abt, a psychotherapist and convenor of a Buddhist Sangha, makes regular trips with his group to provide spiritual services to prisoners. A particularly notable example was Doris DeVilliers, who described her experiences organizing retreats for incarcerated women, explaining how the women inside hoped dearly for a place in the retreat, which was set up for only a few of the many prisoners. Although the list of participants was set months in advance, a long line of prisoners would form outside the retreat venue in case there was a cancellation, so great was the need they felt for anything meaningful outside of the tedium of daily life in prison. Doris has been involved in this work for fifteen years. What pushes her to continue visiting prisoners? Placing her hand on her heart, Doris said she realized that she had to be there for the women inside, who have little to look forward to, and there was no way she would let them down.

Doris’s firm commitment to the incarcerated women who wait all year for a retreat does make her a champion for human rights.

However, these volunteer visitors are on the front line of our growing acceptance of punishment as a first response. We praise their work and dedication, but do not take the final step and question the larger system in which they are working. These volunteers get to know the prisoners, and they admit that some are inside because they are a danger to society. But they know that many others simply took a wrong turn, most often in connection to addiction or the drug trade. From simple possession to drug-related crimes against property, theft, and violence, inmates live for years at the mercy of prison guards who are not trained to deal with the high stress conditions inside and who are prone to senseless bullying. More aggressive, hardened criminals with access to underworld money and power victimize many of these inmates. This raises the question: is the punishment we so easily hand out proportional to the crime?

We put far too many people away in this dangerous, harrowing world that changes their lives forever. There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal, and private prisons throughout the U.S. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” The jail population has grown from fewer than 300,000 in 1972 to over 2 million today.

Alcatraz, once home to serious human rights violations, is now a popular tourist attraction.
Alcatraz, once home to serious human rights violations, is now a popular tourist attraction.

We do not bother to think about the full effects and consequences of our system of punishment. How long of a stay inside hell is enough to repay a “debt to society”? How much punishment is really appropriate? In reality, the people we “throw away” in prison are often thrown away for good. Whether they are serving a three, five, or twenty-year sentence, many inmates change for the worse. They have little or no contact with family and friends, and almost no chance of finding a job when they do get out. In essence, any length of imprisonment becomes a lifelong punishment.

So who benefits when we give in to the impulse to punish first, and when we neglect to question whether the punishment fits the crime? Prisons are quickly becoming big business. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party.

How do we define ourselves as champions for human rights? Most often, we stand by those who are unjustly punished, those courageous individuals willing to sacrifice themselves, endure torture, or face death for speaking the truth when injustice prevails. They speak for the most vulnerable among us who bear the greatest pain of unjust systems that deny people the very basic human hopes for survival, a future for their children, and an equal voice in their civic lives. They shed light on inhumane punishments for crimes, and on legal systems that can be arbitrary at best, and that at worst are a part of a strategy for total domination by a powerful few.

Thus, our obligations go far beyond standing up for those who have been unjustly punished. We in the U.S. have an urgent responsibility to contend with our human rights failures. As citizens of the most powerful country in history, we have allowed too much wrong to be done under the guise of protecting our security. We have a responsibility to question our system of punishment, our conception of justice, and to protect the most vulnerable among us. Human rights push us to protect the rights of all in our prison population, even those who perhaps do “deserve” to be punished.

Anita Seth is Executive Director of IF (www.integrities.org), a Santa Cruz, CA non-profit educational and social change organization whose mission is to foster hopeful alternatives for the local and global community. Anita has approached social transformation from a spiritual perspective for 30 years, and is a Reiki Master Teacher.


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