Prisoners of a System

December 21st, 2013
in Op Ed

Written by John Hemington

In recent days there has been a widely read story about the 15-year old boy from a wealthy family who, with some friends, stole two cases of beer from a convenience store got drunk (three times the legal limit in Texas) and drove one of his father's pickup trucks at 70 mph through a 40 mph speed zone, lost control and killed four innocent pedestrians and injured several others, including his friends in the truck.

Follow up:

This youth got off with 10-years of probation and his father agreed to send him to a $450,000 a year luxury counseling center in California because the Judge said that there were no adequate treatment centers in Texas which were suitable for him. This is what happens in the United States these days when you are rich or are the scion of a wealthy family - the laws are for others, not for you.

The Other Side of Justice

There is another side of this story. It's not one most of us want to hear, but it's vastly more important. Chris Hedges taught a four month class on plays to a group of 28 hard-core prisoners in a New Jersey prison. The end result was a play composed by the prisoners and edited by Hedges. This is a compelling article. The United States imprisons over 2.2 million people, far more than any other nation on earth - many for the simple crime of being poor and minority victims of a society gone crazy for profit at any price.

One of the people in Hedges' class was imprisoned at the age of 14 and will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. There is no mention of what the crime was, but it's difficult to imagine that it was any worse or more wanton than that committed by the 15 year old mentioned above. But most of these folk are way too poor to afford high priced lawyers who can invent defenses such as the "affluenza defense" which garnered a luxury parole for the above 15 year old.

Ghettos, Urban and Rural

There are some particularly bad and troubled people in our prisons - there always have been people like this - but we have permitted conditions to exist in our urban ghettos that provide few options to the youth growing up in these mean streets to escape the sociopathic environment in which they are forced to exist. This environment didn't just happen; it was created, and I believe created deliberately with malice aforethought by the creation of a so-called "welfare system" designed to result in exactly the dysfunctional ghettos we now see in almost every American city and in the "white-ghettos" in many rural areas - places where families are hard-put to remain together and still receive assistance, which itself is meager.

These are places where there are few if any "honest" jobs to be had and where survival frequently depends upon being the toughest person in the gang. Few of these youth ever see a parent - assuming that there is an "active" parent present most of the time - go off to work at a job when there are no jobs to be had. So the role models almost always come from the street - drugs and prostitution and gambling and gangland murders. Few of these youth expect to live to be 21 and so have no fear of or compunction against the use of violence.

Blaming Victims of a Dysfunctional World

This is a dysfunctional world in which to grow up and we both created it and sustain it and then blame them for what so many of them end up becoming. At best this is a level of immorality that taints each and every one of us and yet few are willing to even acknowledge the existence of this milieu much less pressure our officials for humane and effective policies to change the nature of these urban concentration camps we have permitted to exist in our midst.

We haven't done this because it would be expensive to do it right. It would mean turning the welfare system upside down to make it possible for families to remain together, to have jobs which pay a living wage and to have local education systems paid for by all of the taxpayers of the state and not just by the impoverished local communities.

We could, and should, have real job training programs for those in prison, with many working in the communities supervised by former inmates so that upon release, and most do eventually get released, the former inmates will have real skills and the communities in which they live can have a higher level of sustainability. Former inmates with the skills necessary to supervise will then have actual job performance to fall back on when looking for better opportunities.

Are there risks, sure, but not nearly the risks we now face with angry, frustrated inmates released into the community with no hope of finding meaningful work on the outside where the real alternatives are drugs and more violence. And, there is no shortage of work which needs to be done to make the communities livable once more.

Welfare for the Wealthy and Neglect for the Poor

We can afford to give tens of trillions of dollars to the Wall Streets banks to permit them to continue with their extraordinarily destructive criminal practices; it would take far less than that to make a real difference in the lives of our urban poor and the incredible number of those we keep locked up in our highly profitable privatized prison system.

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