Whiskey & Gunpowder
by Jeffrey Tucker
April 25, 2012
Auburn, Alabama, U.S.A.
Are You The Next Prisoner?
The United States is home to a gigantic socialist sector, larger and with a greater reach than any in the world, and it is fed by tax dollars and managed entirely by the government. Strangely, the opponents of socialized medicine and socialized industry don’t complain about it. In fact, all throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they urged its expansion.
It is called the prison system. It’s a fairly new system, but the cruelties of similar systems are so famed throughout history that they are spoken of by the Psalmist: “For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.”
The presumption in the Psalms is that prisoners are despised, ignored, forgotten, dismissed — and they are in our country, where this topic is not even on the list in the mainstream debate.
It’s stunning when you think about it. The “land of the free” is home to the world’s largest prison population. Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population, yet one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates are in the U.S. The ratio of the prison population to the general population is higher in than any other nation in the world. Russia is second. China is third.
If the jailed lived in one place, the 2.3 million would be the fourth largest American city, between Chicago and Houston. Every day, 35,948 people are newly incarcerated (source), and the only people who even bother to talk about it are considered to be on the fringe left, crazy people who can’t stop pleading for special interests.
Maybe we have more criminals who need to be locked up? It depends on how you define a criminal. Some two-thirds of people mired in the justice system (prison, probation, parole) are in for nonviolent offenses. Among federal prisoners, 91% are in for nonviolent crimes. No dictator in the world gets away with this.
And while the prison system as we know it came into existence in the early part of the 20th century, the trend toward mass imprisonment is relatively new. The numbers in prison are five times higher than in 1980, when the war on drugs really became a nationwide mania and sentencing became long and mandatory. Nearly the whole of the change is accounted for by these two facts alone. In 1980, 40,000 people were in the slammer for drug-related charges. Today, it is closer to half a million.
The statistics are not unknown. They have never been more accessible. But people hear these statistics and think: “Well, that seems like a lot of people, but hey, I’m not there and my friends and family aren’t there. Regardless, we are probably better off with too many people in jail, rather than too few. At least the streets are a bit safer than they otherwise might be. So let’s just forget about it, shall we?”
But it turns out to be very easy these days to trip over that wire that causes you to land in jail. The trouble is that you don’t know that until it happens. It could be a mistake that you or a family member made in handling too much cash. It could be a joint that someone smoked at your house party. It could be an unpaid ticket. It could be a tweet you sent that insulted a bureaucrat.
It could be the wrong download, upload or file-sharing act. Or maybe you lost your temper at the airport and said something you shouldn’t in the presence of a TSA agent. Maybe you acted on a stock tip that was slightly too revealing. Even the wrong glance at a cop could cause your life to unravel.
Any of these actions and thousands of others can cause you to become embroiled in a system you cannot control and cannot resist. You spend the night in jail. You are bailed, but there are endless legal battles ahead to get out of the thicket.
Your life suddenly becomes about keeping your freedom. You pay lawyers. You lose time from work going to hearings. You lose sleep with worry and have to take pills you never thought you would. Your finances are crushed. You can hardly think about anything else. This goes on for months and you are pretty much a wreck.
The whole thing seems crazy and preposterous. Why is the state focusing on you, rather than on real criminals? You are an easier and safer target. Plus, you broke the law. It is a dumb law and it is understandable that you broke it — and you would never do it again, even though many others who have done the same are out free — but you finally have to admit it: You are more guilty than innocent.
It comes time to plea-bargain. Your lawyers make a deal with the system. If you admit guilt, you will be let off. The sentence of 20 years, or whatever it happens to be, will likely be suspended. You agree to the deal, anything to bring an end to this hell. But something goes wrong. The judge sentences you anyway. Wait, this isn’t the way it is supposed to turn out! But now there is nothing you can do.
Then you find that the prison system is the crystallization of life under government control. Your Facebook, Twitter, email, phone number are all zapped. Freedoms of association, speech and press are entirely absent. Human rights don’t apply. The choices you can make about how to spend your time are allocated to you by wardens and at their discretion. Your person and labor are valued by no one in particular. Everything you consume — whether it is food or space — your masters regard as a favor granted.
Everyone who cares about you is outside the prison. The people on the inside do not care whether you live or die. And to your amazement and shock, you find that the prison is not filled with violent thugs, thieves and murderers. Most everyone is pretty much like you. They are people, real people with families and friends and lives, who were stopped by a cop and had forgotten to take the marijuana out of the glove box. They are people who exploded in a temporary rage at a bureaucrat. They are people who downloaded and shared the wrong files.
You discover an entire world behind walls, thousands of people just like you, and nearly all of them could be out living productive lives, caring for their families, contributing to life in their communities, living out their dreams on the outside. But here they are in this government institution — like millions of others in our time and throughout history — wasting away their lives in the name of some claim of “justice” that clearly does not exist.
The experience is enlightening and amazing. Prisoners are not who you thought they were. You want to get the news to everyone on the outside. You want to reveal this scandal to the world.
What do you say? The slogans that created this system — “the war on drugs,” “get tough on crime,” “zero tolerance,” “mandatory sentencing” — are about politics, not justice or humanitarianism, and they have nothing to do with the reality you see. It is a cruel system, completely out of control, and one with an immense human cost.
The prison system is a massive human rights violation. It has to be stopped.
But there’s a big problem: You can’t speak. You can’t act. You now know the truth, but now you also know that there is nothing you can do about it. And you also know that everyone on the outside pretty much thinks exactly how you used to think. They do not care.
Whiskey & Gunpowder — THE Free Market e-Letter 2012
Executive editor, Laissez Faire Books
Please let me know what you think on twitter
Thanks for reading as always,