Mass imprisonment in America: A social and spiritual tragedy
The past several years have seen an explosion of public awareness, abetted by a spate of excellent journalism, about the epoch-defining crisis of mass incarceration in America. To take just one notable example, Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, summarizes the situation in unequivocally stark and apocalyptic language:
Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
… The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men — a full house at Yankee Stadium — wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic — more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year — that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape — like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows — will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.
— Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012
One of the things that strikes home most forcefully about this situation is the veritable moral and spiritual Armageddon that it represents, embodies, and portends for the social and personal lives of everybody involved. And that circle of involvement now includes, obviously, everybody, and extends into society at large not just by the fact of mass imprisonment itself but by its lasting effects on the lives of convicted felons after they’re released. This is a reality that I have found myself personally encountering very frequently, sometimes daily, for the past several years as I have worked at a community college and found myself interacting with students whose academic, professional, and personal lives have been profoundly altered by time spent in prison.
For some deep thinking about the whole matter, and of the type that provokes profound soul-searching, I direct your attention to a piece published yesterday at First Things. It’s written by Leah Libresco, a religion blogger over at Patheos, and it features her using the springboard of Les Misérables (as currently spotlighted by the new film adaptation of the stage musical) to reflect on the real human costs of the American plague of imprisonment. After briefly discussing the problems of political disenfranchisement and hugely diminished employment prospects that greet convicted felons after they’re released, she meditates on the higher and deeper tragedy of the whole thing on a moral and spiritual plane that isn’t ethereal or abstract but directly relevant to our collective and individual lives:
[E]ven if a person breaks his part of the social contract by breaking the law, the criminal has a higher claim on us than that of mere citizenship. His membership in the human family cannot be dissolved any more than any act, however abhorrent, can break the bond between brother and sister. His human dignity demands our care and compassion, even if he is fallen so far as to reject help.
A criminal justice system that is not oriented toward rehabilitation and restoration answers one injustice with another. Two people are wounded by a crime: the victim and the person who has made the choice to victimize another. The more severe the crime, the greater the wound to the criminal’s character and the more urgent the need for healing. Justice strives to make the victim whole and heal the victimizer, so that both can live full and compassionate lives. The life of the victim is not restored by throttling the soul of the criminal.
And it does no service to the soul of society. If our prisons are full of Valjeans, our body politic is thronged with Javerts. Near the end of the show, the inspector’s rigidity and hatred of mercy drive him to suicide. With one out of every hundred American adults in prison, our callousness is no less fatal.
— Leah Libresco, “A Nation of Valjeans,” On the Square, First Things, January 16, 2013