Convict Nation

BY Silja J.A. Talvi

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Let me tell you what hurts the most
I’m a convicted felon and I can’t work
No matter where I go to try to get paid …
That’s the everyday life of a convict
Trying to make it while they’re saying to me:
The judge said, “Don’t trouble nobody,”
Probation said, “Don’t trouble nobody,”
“Stay out of trouble, don’t trouble nobody,”
And I’m a tryin’ not to trouble nobody …

Picture lookin’ at your babies in the face
When they hungry and they need to eat
Trying not to do wrong,
But they won’t let me do right.
Even though I done change my life
Criminal record’s what they’re judging me by.

Akon, “Trouble Nobody.”

In May, I traveled to McNeil Island Corrections Center, a medium-custody men’s prison in Washington state. I made the journey out there because I had been invited to experience the Native American prisoners’ annual Pow Wow, which brings together spiritual elders, prisoners and their families, for a powerfully intense four-hour ceremony. The biggest challenge, as I quickly discovered, wasn’t taking in all of the emotion surrounding the event, but having even the briefest moment of privacy for thinking, taking notes, or taking to prisoners. Increasingly, American prison life doesn’t allow for privacy–not even for outsiders like myself. I could discern no possible security risk from a small-statured woman with a pen and a notepad at an island prison, surrounded by barbed wire and frigid waters. Regardless, for four hours, my every move and word was followed, intercepted and occasionally interjected upon. I could barely endure it for the half a day I was there. Millions of Americans don’t have that choice.

Of course, many prisoners are indeed guilty of precisely the crimes they’ve been charged with–or some version of the crime for which they’ve been sentenced. And some are absolutely innocent, doing time on trumped up charges, or because a snitch got out of prison time by “rolling” on some of his friends. But assessing the consequences of our country’s soaring imprisonment rates has less to do with the question of guilt versus innocence than it does with the question of who, among us, truly deserves to go to prison and face the restrictive–and sometimes brutally repressive–conditions found there.

Mass incarceration: Who is it good for?

The latest statistics on the U.S. prison and jail population from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) barely seemed to register on the news radar when they were released in late May.

Between glimpses of the Enron trial and the President’s surreal projections of “progress” in Iraq, Americans were informed on CNN’s electronic ticker tape that, by mid-year 2005, the official U.S. incarceration count stood at 2,186,230 inmates. Over the course of one year, our nation saw an increase of 56,428 prison and jail inmates, amounting to an average of 1,085 new adult prisoners each week. In just one decade, the number of prisoners in the United States has risen by more than 600,000 men and women, so that 738 out of every 100,000 Americans are sitting in some kind of a prison or jail. Our rates already far exceed those of Russia’s, a politically and economically unstable country which throws 594 out of 100,000 citizens in the slammer. In contrast, the U.K. does so at a rate of 144 per 100,000, and France’s incarceration rate stands at just 88 out of 100,000.

As was the case last year, six of 10 of prisoners in our state facilities are people of color. That number is likely to be higher, as BJS doesn’t keep comprehensive, national statistics on Native American or Latino prisoners. (This is a result of individual states that choose not to report those demographics separately.) Both groups are heavily, disproportionately represented in states such as New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota and Washington.

People are understandably a bit more familiar with the impact of mass incarceration on Black men. At least one in eight African American men ages 25-29 are doing time. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of these folks as they’ve cycled in and out of the system, trying to make ends meet just as Senegalese-born Akon describes in the song excerpted above. Many organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, have rightfully characterized this overincarceration of African Americans one of our greatest present-day civil rights issues.

Women now account for nearly 7 percent of state and federal prisoners, and 13 percent of the nation’s jail population (compared with 10 percent in 1995). Black women are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white women.

“The number of women in prisons and jails has reached a sad new milestone,” says Kara Gotsch, Director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

“Over 200,000 women are now incarcerated,” Gotsch explains. “Since 1980, [especially] as women became entangled in the ‘war on drugs,’ the number in prison increased at nearly double the rate of incarceration for men. The impact of their incarceration devastates thousands of children who lose their primary caregiver when mom goes to prison.”

The “War on Drugs,” indeed. I’ve personally started likening this war to our short-sighted, grossly miscalculated War on Terror–only the War on Drugs has gotten a serious head start on the body count. Like terrorism, drugs are still everywhere–they’re even more pervasive, in point of fact. The people best at “the game” are hiding out, strategizing, doing damage and raking it in–this is a multi-billion dollar industry, after all–while the regular ol’ users, addicts, street-level hustlers, and even unwitting bystanders and girlfriends charged with “conspiracy” end up locked down by the thousands.

This is in spite of the findings of a recent poll conducted by Zogby International for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. American voters insisted by almost a 9-to-1 margin that they favored rehabilitative services for nonviolent prisoners over a punishment-only system.

Right now, at least 530,000 are incarcerated on drug-related sentences. I’m still trying to figure out how any of that is making a dent in the struggle and strife I see on urban street corners.

Statistics like these give us a sense of how out-of-control the situation is. They give journalists something to hang stories on; they also give prison activists and correctional employees alike a perspective of how their immediate realities fit into a far larger picture.

But prison statistics have become their own version of a double-edged sword. When we’re talking about numbers as big as these, statistics easily obscure the individual stories and struggles of those caught in the sticky, far-reaching net of American mass incarceration.

The girls of today; the prisoners of tomorrow?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a group of girls in a drab, concrete juvenile detention pod in King County. I was there as a volunteer, to facilitate a writing workshop under the auspices of a Seattle-based-group, Powerful Voices. In doing so, I also hoped to gain more insight into the lives of these girls, who are increasingly locked for crimes ranging from truancy to drug dealing. I told the girls what I wanted to know about them and their lives, and most of them opened up to me, a complete stranger, with the kind of searing, brutal honesty that still surprises me.

One of the 15-year-olds was pregnant, although most of the other girls didn’t know that yet. She held her stomach tenderly from time to time. Some of the girls were loud and boisterous, competing for attention and trying to show precisely how “fierce” they were. (Coming from 13 and 14-year-old girls, that’s an easy enough bluff to see through.) One girl, just a few months shy of turning 18, admitted to the group that this was her twelfth time being locked up in some kind of an institution. Her first had been in another state, where she had been thrown into a mixed juvenile/adult psychiatric facility as a 12-year-old–with understandably traumatic consequences.

I asked all of the girls to participate in a few writing exercises with me about their fears and dreams. One of those writing exercises had to do with the first night that they were incarcerated in juvenile detention. This caused a fair amount of consternation. “Do you mean this time or the first time,” one girl bellowed. As it turned out, most of the girls had been in juvie more than once. The cycle of incarceration and re-incarceration, for them, had already begun.

When we finally settled that they were to write about their first time ever, everyone got to work, munching on microwave popcorn and drinking Tang as they went along.

“It was scary, dirty, and just not a place for me,” wrote one 14-year-old. “I felt sad and lonely.”

I asked her, later, where she saw herself five years from now.

She laughed. I got her to talk a bit about why she found this question so ridiculous, and this is what she finally said: “I don’t even know me five minutes from now.”

Eventually, this is what she wrote on a piece of paper: “How am I supposed to know that tomorrow is even promised? If I make it to five years from now, I hope that I’ll have a job, a boyfriend, and [that] I’m doing good. But that’s never promised.”

I told her, as she walked out, that she was right. Nothing’s promised to us in this world. But I, for one, believed in her ability to make it to the next day. And then next. And that day, five years from now, when she could actually defy her odds, to live a fulfilling life in what prisoners commonly refer to as the “free world.”

I’m still hoping, writing, and looking toward living in the kind of country that actually gives her that chance.

Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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