We live in troubling times.
On December 8, 2001, Philadelphia police rushed upon a permitted protest march that was demonstrating to demand a new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal; police arrested eight, breaking one young woman’s tailbone and another’s jaw. Those arrested, including a Buddhist pacifist and a girl who weighed about 100 pounds, were charged with assault of police officers and felony rioting; eyewitness reports differed drastically from the police accounts and the story given by local media.
On August 1 and 2, 2000, about 420 demonstrators in Philadelphia were arrested on various charges during the Republican National Convention. Many of the demonstrators were injured in police custody, and they were held on bails of up to $1 million. Almost all charges have since been dropped or court cases won for lack of incriminating evidence.
I was incarcerated for three weeks, along with 24 co-defendants, in July and August of 2001 on baseless accusations of "criminal association," in the wake of protests against Genoa’s G-8 summit of world leaders. That experience, witnessing terrible police brutality and living under 24-hour surveillance and control in prison, has only strengthened my lifelong resolve to end the dehumanizing and brutalizing practice of human confinement, which does nothing either to deter crime or to rehabilitate those who commit crimes. The criminalization of youth and political dissent show the truth of the statement, "America’s children are our most valuable natural resource": anyone who has ever seen a strip mine or a clear-cut forest understands the fate of valuable natural resources.
According to President George W. Bush, in the wake of September 11, about 2,400 people have been taken into federal custody—hundreds of them without charges or on unrelated visa violations—and at least one has died in custody. They have been denied access to lawyers, their families, and outside medical treatment. The FBI and INS refuse to release their names, the number detained, where they are being held, or what they are charged with. Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, is now detained indefinitely without charge. Walter Pincus’s October 21, 2001, Washington Post article quoted an FBI agent, discussing the use of torture and drugs in September 11 interrogations: "It could get to that spot where we could go to pressure, where we don’t have a choice, and we are probably getting there." If they are even granted a trial, these detainees may face closed, military tribunals and the possibility of capital punishment, even for conspiracy and other non-homicide charges. The time-honored division between the executive and judicial branches of the United States government has melted away.
When justice seems so arbitrary, one may ask, "Is anyone safe?" But the tragedies of September 11 show us that security has always been an illusion. This realization calls into question the United States’ War on Crime, which has dogged this country for decades in our relentless hunt for that will-o-the-wisp called security. The "butcher bill" of this war is staggering, as perusal of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows. There are 6.5 million people in prisons and jails or on probation or parole in the United States. That’s one person in 40. Since 1980, this country’s incarceration rate has tripled and the population behind bars has quadrupled, giving the United States the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate. If this trend continues, one of every 20 people alive today in this country will serve prison or jail time in his or her lifetime.
The financial cost alone boggles the mind: annual U.S. spending on the criminal justice system has reached $180 billion. In 1997, $485 per U.S. resident was spent on prisons and jails. Incarcerating one person for one year is enough to put seven people through community college or drug rehab. Spending on law enforcement has quintupled since 1980, and the prisons and jails are still packed beyond their holding capacities.
Racism in this system is clear. One African American adult in ten is currently under correctional supervision. An estimated 28 percent of African American men will enter state or federal prison during their lifetimes, as compared to 16 percent of Latino men and 4.4 percent of white men. If current trends continue to the year 2020, 63 percent of all African American men between the ages of 18 and 34 will be behind bars.
Furthermore, the number of incarcerated women has increased seven times since 1980, while in every state, thousands of women are still turned away from shelters for lack of space. Of women in jails, 48 percent had been physically or sexually abused before their incarceration; 27 percent had been raped. Many of these women were imprisoned for defending themselves against abusive partners. In 1996, New York spent $180,000 for each of 1,395 prison spaces for women; the state could have spent that money on shelters that would have eliminated the occasion for these women’s incarceration.
A nationwide Bureau of Justice Statistics survey showed that in the year 2000, over a third of all people in jail had some physical or mental disability; a quarter said they had been treated at some time for a mental or emotional problem. Almost half had no high school diploma or GED. Of all people in jail, 36 percent were unemployed during the month before they were arrested, and 20 percent were looking for work. If our government spent as much on public health, education, and job creation as it did on prisons and jails, and provided adequate defense for indigent defendants, we would see both the crime rate and the incarcerated population drop away.
The constantly rising rates of incarceration would suggest an ever-more dangerous society, but in fact, over 50 percent of all prisoners are locked up for nonviolent offenses: drug offenses, property crime, and violations of the "public order."
While some argue that the decreasing rate of reported violent crime shows that incarcerating millions of people is a successful strategy, our prisons’ population boom is largely due to their failure to deter crime. Of the current prison population, 97 percent will eventually be released, but prisoners released on parole or probation meet with an utter lack of resources to help them adjust to the outside world, often leaving them to return to prison. Since 1990, the number of new offenders sent to state prisons rose only 7.5 percent, while the number of people who returned to prison for parole violations or for new offense while on parole jumped 54.4 percent, causing most of the growth in the U.S. prison population. Prisons have created a self-perpetuating "prison class."
It is no wonder that more than seven of every ten people in jail were on probation or parole at the time they were rearrested; the outside world seems to have no place for them. Released convicts are often legally barred from jobs, housing, and educational institutions; restrictions on prison visitation and telephone calls have caused them to lose contact with their families; and 13 states prohibit convicted felons from voting. In addition, most states have drastically cut funding for education, drug rehab, and job training in prisons, and have abolished early release for good behavior: all programs that could have helped prisoners readjust to the outside world. Nationwide, 82 percent of parolees who return to prison are addicted to drugs or alcohol; 40 percent are unemployed; 75 percent have not completed high school; and 19 percent are homeless. The means for released convicts to live normally in outside society are often simply not there.
Instead of helping convicted citizens "pay their debts to society," as was traditionally supposed, mandatory-minimum legislation and "three-strikes-you’re-out" laws take away judges’ sentencing discretion and cause nonviolent offenders to spend inordinate portions of their lives in prisons and jails. The social cost of incarcerating them far outweighs the social cost of the offenses of which they are accused.
In addition, the 1996 report of the National Criminal Justice Commission found that almost all of the 2,000 people then on death row had family histories of physical or psychological abuse. If the millions of dollars per case spent on executing them, which cuts into social service spending, had instead been spent on shelters, after-school programs, counseling, or domestic crisis intervention, there is a good chance that the victims they were accused of killing would have been alive today.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A 1999 Senate subcommittee survey of prison wardens found that 92 percent nation-wide felt that greater use should be made of alternative sentencing. If we must have district attorneys at all, we can elect district attorneys that seek these alternative sentences, such as community service, counseling, drug rehabilitation, educational programs, and job training and placement.
We can work for the abolition of the archaic and brutalizing death penalty, and join the global community of nations that have condemned this blatant violation of the basic human right to life. An immediate moratorium would allow our society to reflect on the death penalty’s glaring racial and economic bias, its absolute failure as a deterrent (death-penalty states’ homicide rates are double those of abolitionist states), its absurd cost, and its 68 percent conviction error rate. Not to mention its vengeful nature that flies in the face of the ethics of almost all world religious bodies.
We can work for community self-rule, rather than heavily armed police forces that often come from outside the neighborhoods they police. The intervention of community leaders, gang members negotiating truces, neighborhood Alternatives to Violence Projects, self-defense classes, and neighborhood patrols to accompany people who fear crime at night—these are all effective ways to make streets safer, building cooperation rather than coercion and control.
We can demand a moratorium on the building of new prisons until our society can come up with alternatives to incarceration and abolish prisons altogether. We can also resist the growing privatization of "prisons for profit," which economize by sacrificing health care, living conditions, employee training, and security.
In terms of measures that improve conditions for prisoners and ex-convicts, there are several: Books Through Bars, the Alternatives to Violence Project, and the NAACP’s fight to give back to felons the right to vote after they have served their time, are a few.
We need to rethink our failed and costly War on Drugs, to emphasize drug treatment, education, needle exchange, and rehabilitation. Countries that have depenalized the use of drugs by addicts, such as the Netherlands and Australia, have seen a dramatic decrease in drug-related crime. We can take the money these measures save us on incarceration and executions and use it to increase poor communities’ access to quality legal defense, as well as to housing, education, health care, drug counseling and rehab, domestic abuse intervention, and jobs.
Making peace in our communities, rather than incarcerating a generation: it’s a simple message, but it requires hundreds of creative approaches, all working together. Whatever our solutions, prevention of crime costs pennies compared to the billions we are spending on punishment. While white-collar criminals, abusive police officers, and world leaders who commit war crimes walk the streets with impunity; while streets are increasingly surveilled even though statistically one is most at risk of violent crime in one’s own home; while the very state that decries violence against the public order spends trillions of dollars on a military budget to destroy the public good; the myth of American justice becomes transparently absurd.
When human beings are reduced to numbers that can be commodified, dismissed, and disposed of, Friends have a special calling to recognize the Light within each soul and to live by Jesus’ reminder: "I was in prison, and you came unto me."
Attempting to hunt down and destroy all of the nation’s "criminals" is like using a sledgehammer to nail Jell-O to the wall. As conscientious objectors to war, Quakers are not exempt from our obligation to abstain from the drug war, the crime war, and the terrorist war. We must be soldiers of peace: community leaders, activists, volunteers, teachers, people of faith, advocates, families, friends, and more. We must change this culture of death and destruction to a culture of freedom, reconciliation, and life.