Set the Captive Free

I read my friend Dyana’s Art House America essay about her brother “definitely going to prison, and probably for a long time,” and the air went out of my chest. The fear and anger and helplessness were so heavy, almost palpable. I had to turn away from the essay a couple of times during the reading and just look at nothing and breathe.

Sweet quirky Dyana. Her brother. No.

I remember the long shuttle ride from an MFA residency to the airport I took with Dyana several years ago during which she told me about her brother: he was in some trouble, but he was a good kid and she loved him. “I think you guys would like each other,” she said to me. I thought we probably would.

Now he is in prison, probably for a very long time. Dyana has occasionally lashed out angrily at the system, for making her brother feel like less than a human being, for making her and her family feel helpless before a massive, Kafkaesque justice system. I see her posts, and I too get angry.

The circles in which I move these days are full of academics, people who are of as much interest to the local police as the trees lining Rivermont Avenue. If I do a mental checklist of my friends and acquaintances, I cannot think of a single person who has been locked up. The corrections system isn’t something that comes up much.

Only days after Dyana’s essay went live, my wife and I watched the documentary The House I Live In, an indictment of both the so-called War on Drugs and the for-profit prison system. Among other things, the movie argues persuasively that the war on drugs is not primarily about drugs at all, but is a powerful machine for controlling minorities and the poor.

One of many examples supporting the movie’s argument: the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of crack cocaine was until recently one hundred times the minimum sentence for pure powder cocaine. That is, if someone was arrested with one ounce of crack the judge was compelled by law to give him the same sentence that a person busted with one hundred ounces of powder cocaine would get.

The difference between them? Crack is not as pure or as potent—oh, and poor blacks were the ones getting busted with it; wealthy whites had the good stuff, the powder. This ridiculous disparity has been challenged and addressed; the sentencing gap has gone from one hundred to one down to eighteen to one.

This is not about drugs. This is about who is being locked up, and why, and for how long. In the words of Mark Jenkins, writing for NPR, “The country’s incarceration industry has become a self-sustaining force, predicated on economics rather than justice.”

Incarceration industry, he calls it. Yes, it is an industry, and business is booming. The maker of this documentary visits a trade show and goes from booth to booth—people hawk the newest restraint chair, stun gun, marksmanship-training video-games.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. This has only been the case since harsher sentencing in the seventies; from 1970 to 2009, the percentage of human beings locked up in the Unites States went up 772%. Is it because crime has spiked in the same way? No.

Guess who makes up this 772% increase. Minorities and the poor.

Do you know that private prisons are quite lucrative? They are paid to keep human beings locked away, and the more they lock away the more they get paid—some state and local governments even have agreed to pay incarceration companies for every bed they fail to arrest someone to fill, creating a de-facto quota system—police are sent out like vacuum salesmen to fill these beds. Is it any wonder that these companies lobby to keep the draconian mandatory minimum sentences?

Oh, these companies also manufacture goods for the market, using all that free slave labor. It’s a sweet deal.

When I think about it, I am furious. Are these human beings guilty? If you mean, have they broken some law, then, yes, most of them have—non-violent offenders damaging themselves (why not imprison the alcoholic? the gambling addict?).  And their sentences are arbitrarily and shockingly harsh because of the class and race of the typical offender.

And just this past week, in class we read and discussed “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children,” and I see what I’ve always known is there, but haven’t spent as much time with as other elements of the story. Why is the man locked away? He is odd, unfamiliar, and he possesses attributes that are potentially threatening—oh, and because they can earn money from his imprisonment. Pelayo, an officer of the criminal justice system, chooses not to club the poor old man to death, but to lock him away and use him for profit. He can do it because he is the one with power in the relationship: he carries the bailiff’s club.

Many in our swelling prisons are doing long hard time for the crime of being poor. It isn’t because the system has failed them either; the system is doing just what is was designed by the wealthy and the powerful to do.

Human beings with power are putting human beings without power into a prison grinder, and they are scooping up the cash that flows out the other side. As usual, they are blaming these conditions on the powerless. We call it the Justice System.

  • T.Martin Lesh

    First off .. if I may … a correction . Crack Cocaine may not be as ‘ pure ‘ but its affects both short and long term on the user are much more intense and severe .. as is the usual aftermath that soon follows ( violence erratic behavior etc ) As far as the ‘ War on Drugs ‘ and injustice . As a former user [ luckily never addicted ] and having seen the mass destruction of human lives , families and individuals due to their abuse of illegal or legal drugs [ by the time I was 25 I'd lost ten friends and associates to drug overdose etc ] may I genuinely request that you take a step down from your Ivory Tower self righteousness and get a bit clearer view of ‘ reality ‘ when it comes to drugs – drug addiction etc .. putting aside agenda based material/documentaries created by a group who’s sole intent is the legalization of drugs despite any real and viable consequences because …. THEY stand to profit if it happens [ do the research ]… then taking the time and effort to see what is real and what is fiction .

    As to your friends brother . What you [ and your friend ] should be regretting is the fact that HE may some very bad / selfish and reckless choices in his life … and so yes …. now he’s paying the price for the decisions that HE … and he alone made . Tragic ? Yes ! Injustice ? Not hardly .

    Fact is … I could of easily wound up in his shoes myself but at the tipping point I made the personal Choice to walk away rather than continue on to what most likely would of been at least a similar if not worse series of consequences

    As to the Prisons for Profit ? That .. has been a deplorable decision on the part of State , County and Federal Governments . But as to the legalization of drugs or in any way feeling ‘sorry ‘ for those caught in the act [ I'd ask also how many 'breaks' did the brother catch before the hammer was finally dropped ? ] That is a path no Angel would dare to tread upon …. if you’re catching my meaning

    In closing … as a Christian .. who’s life previously was riddled with sin and stupidity [ converted at age 25 ] and only by the grace of God walked away from intact and complete … I would welcome any and all discourse on either the above comment .. or the subject of illicit drugs – addiction etc with yourself or anyone else on the site wishing to do so

    • Dave Simmons, Lutheran, WV

      Just remember that it is also the same “grace of God” that does not disclose to you how much you remain riddled with sin and stupidity.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Vic, thanks for this powerful, all-too-true essay. Yes, the U.S. private prison industry is big (profitable) business. And our whole incarceration system is the modern version of racist oppression: the must-read on this is Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”.

    • Vic

      Thanks, Peggy. I’m going to read it.

  • jenny

    Most addicts suffer from abuse in their childhood, abuse that they may not even be aware of.
    Unresolved emotional issues are expressed in anger…which leads to drugs/alcohol/crime, etc……

  • Dyana

    Thanks so much for writing this post, Vic. I think this is one of the most urgent issues facing our country, and one that few people know much about if it hasn’t touched them personally. I’m sorry to say I knew very little about any of this before my brother was facing prison. And then what I learned was harrowing.

    Anyone readers who are interested in learning more about Mandatory Minimum Sentences on both the federal and state levels (which are often shocking in the amount of time they require judges to sentence offenders to for a variety of nonviolent crimes, regardless of whether the judge feels the sentence is reasonable) should check out FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) at http://www.fam.org. They’re also on Facebook and Twitter, and have a wealth of information and resources for those who want to learn more about what’s happening in our “justice system.”

    • Dyana

      P.S. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is one of my favorite short stories.

  • Derek Bickerton

    Oh, sure, Martin Lesh, it’s always a good idea to blame the victim. Sure, crack is a menace, but (a) it’s a drug of the poor because they can’t can’t afford the upmarket version and (b) what the hell good does it do to throw the poor bastards in jail for half a lifetime? It obviously isn’t stopping anyone from using the stuff because if you make people live shitty lives they’re going to try to escape SOMEHOW. You don’t need to be a bleeding heart or a would be legal-drug entrepreneur to see this, you just need a modicum of sense,

    As for Rick Sizemore, right on, buddy! Privatized jails are an abomination, remember that juvenile-court judge who got a kickback from them for every kid’s life he ruined? The big question, the one nobody ever answers OR EVEN ASKS, is when all the decent people are going to get together AND TRY TO STOP THIS SHIT!

  • Holly Tomilson

    Martin Lesh provides the common response: if you do the crime, expect the time. Drug addiction is an illness, not a crime. Sending addicts to prison does not help them heal, nor teach them how to live life on life’s terms without a substance. This article is not about legalizing drugs, it’s about the colonization of the poor. The colony is in prisons.

    A young white man I know got arrested for SELLING powder cocaine. His sentence? Probation. Why? He was a middle class boy whose parents could afford a lawyer for him. Did he spend time in jail until his case went to trial? No. Because his parents could pay his bail. Change this story to a young black or white man from a poor family, or with no family, and you get a person who sits in jail until his trial and has a public defender for an attorney. And a prison sentence. Yes. Martin Lesh, there is a disparity in the system.

    I am a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I think we need to decriminalize drugs. I also believe we need to have more drug courts in this country. There a person will get sentenced to rehab instead of prison. With the amount of money that goes into the gaping maw of the prison system, we could take a fraction of it and have publicly funded drug rehabilitation available. But, shucks, there’s no money in rehab. And, gee, people relapse so it’s considered throwing money away…as if there are sure results with a prison sentence (read: they will never commit another crime).

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am in anguish with the poor and minority parents who send their children out to this abomination of the “Judeo-Christian” justice system that we have in the United States of America. The only way I know to effectively address it is to offer our minority and poor friends the “buddy” system that wealthy whites offer each other as “white privilege.” We will stand with them in the event they or their children are unjustly taken into custody.

    It is a travesty of all religions to persecute the poor with our privilege, rather than do all we can to bring them out of despair. According to all religious tenants, with privilege is supposed to come greater responsibility and accountability, not less. Unfettered capitalism is nothing more than another form of slavery.


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