For very nearly fifty years now (fifty years of writing letters/emails/articles/posts, accepting calls, visiting, sneaking in, going in by court order, demonstrating (alone and with others), sitting and testifying in courtrooms, writing judges letters, going to judge's offices, carrying messages/secrets/stuff and babies) incarcerated citizens -- Black, White, Latino, and indigenous -- have asked me with puzzled faces: "Why are you doing this?" I tell them anybody can be locked up. I'm only doing what I would want someone to do for me if it was me behind the walls. Maybe I was locked up in a past life. Maybe I often feel as if I'm locked up in this one.
In any case, all this has given me an education in all things "criminal" (more or less). Some things I learned just by paying attention. Some I've learned by accident. Some I learned by reading books and articles or watching films. And some of it has come through personal experience of one kind or another. But the bulk of it has entered my consciousness through endless conversations with prisoners and former prisoners.
I'll never forget one conversation I had standing four inches from hundred-year-old bars eyeball to eyeball with a man who had just spent five years in a building basement facing the dark side of a hill without another living soul on the tier. Another conversation involved a long night with a bottle of mezcal, a salt shaker and some limes, interrupted at one point by a quick trip to a park nearby for a romantic liaison and a marriage proposal never mentioned by either of us again. And then there was a series of discussions about bank robberies and how they're best accomplished followed by the unanticipated suggestion that we should pull one off -- across the street from where we lived. My response was a rapid-fire: "Are you out of your rabbit-ass mind?!? That could mean 25 federal!" Needless to say, that was the end of that exchange (though not immediately the end of the relationship), but I did learn a good bit about bank robbery in the process.
If I've learned anything about "criminals," however, it's that the vast majority of the real criminals in this country are not in prisons or jails. They don't eat bad food or wear numbers stenciled on their clothes. And none have tattoos on their faces. They're in board rooms and high-end offices and government suites or maybe the Pentagon. The majority of the worst of them are older White men with money. And they don't care if you know it because they're as cold as ice. Don't believe me? Watch Park Avenue: Power, Money, and the American Dream," a documentary you can view for free on PBS until November.
It's not just the billionaires we have to watch. Our whole late stage capitalist culture is rife with individuals who routinely operate using slimy, smarmy, sneaky, snaky, brutally self-serving and underhanded practices intended to line their own pockets to the detriment of everybody else. As babies, in this culture, we learn that we only have to share if somebody tells us to and it's not surprising to note that many younger children now choose to play alone until they need "play dates" before they'll agree to let another kid in their space. By elementary school, children have chosen their "besties" and all the rest can be damned or bullied. And by middle school, they've all found their niche or been relegated to their respective corners in order to ensure their physical -- if not emotional -- safety.
This process is often rooted in socio-economic status. So even if a child born half-way up the ladder does go to a public school (and many of them don't), everything from the designer clothes they wear and the JanSport backpack they carry to the "enrichment" activities they casually mention (or brag about attending) will mark them as the winners they grow up believing they are entitled to expect to be. Not only do they learn early to claim all this as a reasonable outcome of their own "superiority," but let a teacher imply something different and indignant helicopter parents will appear out of nowhere to set everything back on course. And the budding young CEOs and future decision-makers who enjoy membership in this elite club are granted protection from the consequences of everything from vandalism and shoplifting to rape and murder.
It is not the school administrators, teachers, and advantaged youth alone who are aware of this peculiar arrangement to put certain children where they "naturally" belong. Children further down the ladder, especially those closer to the bottom economically, are kept by all concerned acutely aware of how they differ from those that are celebrated as the norm. Children from families that struggle financially, children of color, and children whose parents and grandparents weren't allowed to climb the social mountain are routinely tracked to dead-end expectations for themselves, to thoughts that "college isn't for them," and to the idea that they are at best inadequate, undeserving, and somewhat embarrassing to the rest of the richer, Whiter population.
Should they eventually have the audacity to enroll at an institution of higher learning anyway, they do so with a profound sense, no matter how intelligent they are, how hard they work, or how badly they want to succeed, that they may well not finish -- especially if they are young Black men -- because (comparatively speaking) so many of them don't and because they are so often reminded by authority figures in a thousand ways that they are unlikely to ever be given the respect they deserve in any general sense.
When this idea embeds itself in the mind of a young Black man, it may cause him to believe that the only place he can achieve success is on an athletic field or in the street. And while there are limited numbers of slots on basketball courts or football fields, the sky is literally the limit in the street for a young Black man of talent and intelligence to reach for the moon and get it, at least for a while, garnering in the process the kind of respect he is summarily denied in the White man's world.
This preparation is two-fold in nature. The children who are taught to believe they are "superior" and the children who are taught to believe they are "inferior" are all raised to believe that the more money you have, the more stuff you can flaunt in the faces of the rest of humanity -- no matter how you got it all -- the more valuable you yourself will be seen as being. Everyone wants to be able to meet their basic needs, but it is also true that everyone wants to feel valued and valuable. Everyone wants to have their presence recognized and their contributions respected. But none of these things can be automatically expected in a late stage capitalist society.
For one thing, capitalism requires a great pool of unemployment to keep wages as low as possible so profits will be as high as possible for the corporate stockholders and their minions, the executives and the politicians. This, then, guarantees the existence of millions of poverty-stricken or nearly poverty-stricken citizens in what is touted to be the richest country on Earth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a third of our population (more than one hundred million of us) regularly experience such stresses as not having enough to eat, being badly in debt, having to use credit cards, pawn shops, or payday loan companies to make it from day to day, or going bankrupt because of medical bills. This pushes many families across the line into alternative ways to cover the necessities of life. It also increases the rates of addiction, depression, and anxiety, and exacerbates other forms of mental illness, as well.
In the meanwhile, those who grew up being taught they are White ("superior to the rest of the human race") and entitled, learn also that it is acceptable -- in a dog-eat-dog world where you are (supposedly) the master of your fate -- to take any action, fake any process, break any law, or gouge or gut or destroy any perceived opponent as a necessary part of life. This may sound dramatic, but the results of this mindset abound all around us.
Obscene levels of personal wealth are now viewed as an exciting accomplishment to which anyone can aspire. The decimation of our national infrastructure, the condition of our schools, the incomprehensible situation wherein we find ourselves the only industrialized nation in the world without universal health care, and the rising percentage of jobs in this country reported by the U.S. Office of Accountability as "contingency positions" (temporary, part-time, low wage jobs with no benefits) -- more than 40% in 2015 -- all speak to a society facing impending collapse.
Yet the top 1% (with the solid backing of a government "elected" by a fraction of our adult citizenry) are reaching billionaire status and enjoying a level of opulence that makes Nero fiddling while Rome burned look like compassion. And in a bizarre twist (if you don't consider the combination of socialization, co-option, and unmitigated brain-washing that is unleashed on us all from birth), this criminal abandonment of the common good in the interest of a small number of unethical, immoral perpetrators has been normalized by so many that the rest of us are called idealistic fools.
You can be a warmongering President in America responsible for the deaths of a million people and get away with it. You can be a businessman who pollutes the earth, air, or water; destroys the eco-balance we need to survive; or worsens global warming unnecessarily despite its devastating effects on our only home. You can be a politician who votes to leave the elderly without health care or women without control over their own bodies. You can be a landlord who owns substandard housing that contributes to lead poisoning in children. You can be a monster who feeds on the vulnerable around the world and still not be called, let alone be punished for being, a criminal -- because we consider these things business as usual in our culture, in our way of life.
But in 1865, in a masterful move to protect White Supremacy after a war over just that issue, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution officially made the use of slavery legal if a person is convicted of a crime, whether they did it or not. This gave White prosecutors, White judges, and White juries a free hand to create a criminal "justice" system built on "convict leasing" (offering prisoners to work like dogs for businessmen who could "rent" them from the state for less than it would cost to hire other workers). This way, Black people could be forced to continue to work for free while making money for the state and for enterprising investors. And despite the continual procession of wrongly convicted individuals acknowledged virtually daily from coast to coast, many very egregiously brutalized for decades and far too many incarcerated by over-zealous and under-principled prosecutors, the 13th Amendment with its ignominious slavery codicil still stands.
Further maximizing the effect of all this on the Black community, in 1971, Richard Nixon introduced the "War on Drugs," which soon made it common for poor People of Color to be shuttled into prisons for things that White people were allowed to get away with. This way, Black people could be removed from competition for jobs outside, while serving as the virtually unpaid workers needed to fulfill sweetheart deals between corporations and "correctional" systems. These deals only got sweeter as "convicted felons" were shut out of the job market outside the walls and then forced back thorough the revolving door into incarceration again.
Today, as private prison corporations rise like mushrooms in a Louisiana rainstorm -- developed directly out of the desire to produce profit by torturing people, a criminal act if ever there was one -- this aspect of the prison industrial complex has become the most lucrative investment on Wall Street, while those so carefully prepared for and placed in this system of slavery find it difficult to rise above it because of the permanent stigma the slavery itself carries. And the end result is that the United States, with 4.4% of the world's population, incarcerates 22% of the world's prisoners.
So the prisons are full of incarcerated U.S. citizens, often railroaded and generally non-violent (at least until they get there). Our fractured and badly under-funded social services system has now abdicated its responsibility to provide mental health beds by sending the mentally ill to prisons and jails, where, due to gross over-crowding, they are often housed with those who are not mentally ill, creating predictable risks that often end in exploitation and sometimes death. Corporations rob workers of their much needed jobs by shutting down their factories outside prison to utilize the labor of people they can pay little or nothing inside the walls. And prison decision-makers manipulate public opinion by pushing the humans incarcerated in these institutions to the breaking point.
Having little to no control over their own safety and well being, incarcerated citizens are often routinely forced to contend with situations like the lack of heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer so that human beings are left to die in their cells from heat exhaustion or freezing to death; food routinely distinguished by rat droppings, roaches, and even maggots; use and abuse of solitary confinement, pepper gas, and beatings by guards, sometimes to death; withholding necessary medications or using psychotropics inappropriately; and inadequate and substandard medical services that prisoners are not always able to access without payment. These unconstitutional abuses indicate conditions bad enough to demand rampant investigations.
But there are millions of jobs at stake -- many of them in economically depressed areas -- as well as an unfathomable level of black market criminal activity by guards to provide goods and services to incarcerated consumers with a need of any kind and the wherewithal to pay for it. The prison industrial complex lends itself handily to every imaginable type of pandering and corruption until no one is free of its implications.
So, in order to manipulate public opinion against the men and women at their mercy, "correctional" administrators and guards allow and even encourage much, much worse to keep the level of mayhem inside so frightening to the public that they do not even think of the prisoners as human. Over time, the sheer terror of living minute by minute in such a nightmare of physical debilitation, psychological disintegration, and emotional anguish caused three people to commit apparent suicides in Alabama alone in the past week. And this is a system that only gains by constantly "proving" the need for it.
I would suggest that the criminal "justice" system in this country is full of criminals, but that they are not the ones who are locked up. They are the lying, unethical prosecutors who send poor people to prison even when they know they are innocent; the underfunded public defenders who accept a paycheck when they know they are too overburdened to successfully defend their so-called clients; the judges who pal around with prosecutors and accept bribes and treat people differently because of the color of their skin. They are the ones that design and benefit from the cash bail system that sends the poor to hell as if there was any rationality in it. They are the White Supremacists that assure Black people are more likely to be stopped, rousted, arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison time, life without parole, or the death penalty. They are those who so often display callousness and disrespect against the loved ones of the incarcerated. They are the specific police and guards and administrators whose very existence in the criminal "justice" system is clearly driven by their desire to brutalize and humiliate others who are at their mercy. They are those who kill "in the line of duty" and then lie to get away with it, as well as those who protect and support those who kill in this way. And they are those who choose to work for or invest in the private prison industry, profiting from the suffering of others. These are all criminals, but they are rarely charged with anything. They are instead allowed to commit their crimes without retribution, while they vilify those who remain the victims of their crimes.
And I believe with all my heart that if we know this and say nothing; if we see this and do nothing to stop it; if we watch our country sliding into darkness in this way and allow it to continue without a backward glance, we -- even we -- are criminals, too.
NOTE: The graphic above is by incarcerated citizen Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, whose work may be found here.