Prison as a Prism


The American prison population, to a great extend, is the byproduct of social darwinist ideology that has doomed tens of millions of Americans to a life of crime and prison, which inflicts enormous economic, social and emotional cost to the middle class.  It is in the best interest of the middle class to find ways to empower the underclass with economic and political power. It is imperative for the middle class to choose a new and radical attitude to eliminate the causes of crime.

Prison as a Prism:
Prison Demography Cries for Social Democracy 

Edip Yuksel, J.D.

“His offense was the theft of four cookies from a restaurant. His punishment was jail for 25 years to life . . . Kevin Weber has served more than five years for the theft in 1995 of the four cookies, but a Santa Ana appeal court has decided he is a career criminal and the sentence should stand.” (Just Four Cookies and You’re Out-for 25 Years, Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, June 20, 2001).

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (Preamble of the Constitution of the USA)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18)

“There are also purely environmental explanations of crime–economic, social, psychological–based on slums, broken families, shattered dreams. These views are associated with the “bleeding hearts” of the left. They are unpopular wit the majority. Environmental theories have a grave flaw: they are inconsistent with the culture of choice and responsibility. It is much more attractive to think of the criminal as rotten apple in the barrel; as a human being without moral character, who has ignored the available and legitimate choices and elected to go down the crooked path. (The Republic of Choice, Lawrence M. Friedman, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 148)

As one who spent four years of his youth in prisons of a “foreign” country, and as one who observed the American prison system as an intern in a county jail, and worked in the American legal system for several years, I am personally and professionally interested in American criminal system, its social, economic and political foundation, impact and ramification. I admit that my interest contains some hormones of passion, which I find it proper in treating the subject matter “objectively.”

One of the greatest virtues of Americans is their reverence of individual choice, responsibility, freedom, self-expression and respect to the rule of law. However, the propaganda of social Darwinism has abused and distorted those values, polluting these virtues with blemishes of apathy to the plights of others. Since, philosophy was my springboard to the study and practice of law, I am teaching evening philosophy and logic classes in a Community College. In every philosophy class, to stimulate the synapses of my student’s cerebral dendrites, I allocate few minutes asking them to write short answers to various questions on issues involving society, economy, politics, religion, law, logic, etc. Once I asked the following hypothetical question:

Albert, a lone businessman, worked hard and accumulated a wealth equaling to 10 million dollars. Before his death, he asked his attorney to draft his will. In his will he left all his inheritance, including his mansion, to his three-year-old dog. All his wealth to be used to hire a full time veterinarian, a cook, and a nurse for the dog and provide for her a luxurious life until her death. In the same town in which Albert worked, lived and died, there is a poor neighborhood. It is reported that many children in that neighborhood suffer from malnutrition and do not have proper health care or shelter. Some people asked the governor to declare this will void and distribute the proceedings to the welfare of the poor children. Assuming that the governor has legal right to void certain wills, what do you think the proper way of dealing with the issue? Should the governor order the will void and distribute the wealth of the deceased to the poor children or should she order the will be implemented accordingly?

The great majority of my students argued that the will should be deemed valid and the inheritance of millions of dollars be spent on the dog. “It was his money and should be spent according to his will,” was their common argument. Respecting someone’s will indeed is a sign of appreciation of freedom and choice. But to what extend? How did the businessman make his money? Why was he justified to make millions from the production of his employees who worked for little more than minimum wage? Whether he could accumulate his wealth without the hard work of his employees and without the customers residing in the town? Whether he owed to society the duty not to waste his wealth? Most of the students never even thought of these questions. Interestingly, they all belonged to middle and low-income families! They justified spending 10 million dollars on a dog, rather than spending it to save scores of children from hunger, malnutrition, homelessness, and arguably from becoming potential criminals.

The Land of Liberty, the Republic of Choice, ironically is among the top countries in the world that has a system that deprives many of its citizens from enjoying liberties, opportunities and the pursuit of happiness! The US accounts for 25% of all prisoners in the world although its population is only 5% of the world. In year 2000, the number of inmates in jails and prisons exceeded 2 Million, that is, 2,000,000! Almost one quarter of this number are for drug offences. Considering their relatives and those who had already passed through the prison system, we can safely say that prison bars and guards are intimate objects and faces for minimum 20 million of Americans. Tons of “rotten apples!” No wonder, the booming prison population has turned prison to a lucrative industry in America, attracting capitalist entrepreneurs; they are going to store and squeeze rotten apples to make more profit!

African Americans, according to the 2000 census, with 35 plus million, make up 13% of the population. However, African Americans constitute more than half of the total prison population. In 1997, 3.3% of all black males (or 8.6% of black males between ages 25-29) were in prison, compared to 0.5% of white male. This means that statistically an African American male has about 7 times more chance (!) of ending up in prison in any given year. The risk of a black male born in 1997 ending up in prison once in his lifetime is 28.5%, and of a black female is 3.6%. This risk for Mexican Americans is %16 for male and 15% for female, and for the rest of the white population is 4.4% and 0.59% respectively. In 1999, nearly 1.5 million kids had at least one parent in state or federal prison and millions more saw parents sent off to local jails.

Though 70% of prison population is from racial minorities and the correlation between race and crime is obvious, yet it is deceptive; the real and meaningful correlation is between poverty and crime. The connection between a particular group and poverty is mostly either due to having inherited the disadvantages of exploitation and discrimination of the past (as usually is the case for African Americans), or is due to not having inherited wealth and connection through ancestors (as usually is the case for the first generation of immigrants). As the poor and drunkard father of the beautiful girl in the classic movie My Fair Lady put it, many Americans “cannot afford” to abide by moral or legal rules of the society. Most are doomed from birth to live a life of poverty, which usually hurl them into the assembly lines of crime leading to prison wards. It can be argued that Americans are not born equally free to choose freedom.

Though American legal system could not resist the pressure of the civil rights movement and considered race as a suspect class deserving strict scrutiny in respect of equal protection, so far it managed to ignore one of the most important factors that determines one’s chance of being a free man or an inmate: poverty.

In 1996, the cost of keeping an inmate behind bars was 54.25 dollar per day. In 1997 alone, state prison system drained 29 billion dollars from the budget. Together with federal prisons, the cost reaches to 40 billion dollars a year! In other words, each inmate costs the society more than 20,000 dollars a year, which is close to the average per capita personal income in 1997 ($25,288) and more than the average per capita personal income in Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Arkansas, or Montana. This number does not include the enormous economic, social and emotional cost of crimes, attorney fees and court expenses.

Who are these Americans that generation after generation are frequent residents or visitors of prisons? Where and how do they live? What are their common traits? How are they represented in legal and political landscape? How many lobbyists peddle their interest in Washington? How many of them vote? How long the “either communism or capitalism; communism is dead, therefore, long live capitalism” slogan will keep the middle class justifying the disturbingly increasing and crystallizing gap between upper and lower classes? How far will the “tough on crime” Americans justify sending millions of underclass population behind bars? How can prisons deter those who have little to lose? How can prisons rehabilitate without equipping the inmates with education and skills necessary for employment, and without employers hiring them? How can prisons isolate criminals while the wheels of class system continuously churns out criminals from the same neighborhoods? How can prisons provide justice while prisoners themselves are the victims of an unfair economic and political system? How can prisons satisfy those who seek vengeance while the vengeance of criminals passes from generation to generation? When will politicians start talking about the rights and dreams of the underclass, the American pariah? What is the chance of witnessing a social and economic rights movement akin to 1960’s civil rights movement in the next two decades?

We Americans, I believe, are suffering from what is called the boiled frog syndrome. A frog put in hot water will jump out and save its life. However, a frog put in lukewarm water will boil to death if the temperature of the water were increased gradually. Frogs do not detect and react to gradual, yet fatal changes. Nations, especially in times when they are intoxicated with their success, become complacent and arrogant, unable to react to gradual but fatal changes in the fabric of their society.

The American legal system needs a radical reform that might even prompt the ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. If the American legislators do not lead such a reformation, the impoverished underclass may soon find its voice to revolt against the so-called “free market” that bestows the select 1% of the population with 40% of wealth and endless choices, while dooms the bottom 20% of the population to poverty and dismal choices between street, crimes and prisons. The underclass uprising will not be only black; it will contain all colors. The moment they realize that they have nothing to lose but their shackles, and learn how to organize to free themselves, it might be too late to put the jinni back in the bottle.

The next American Revolution, the economic rights and justice movement will not be the reincarnation of bankrupt Marxist ideology, since its extreme ideals created big bureaucracies, authoritarian regimes, prisons, corruption, disappointment, and destruction. The era of black and white television has long past, and there are promising alternatives to capitalism and communism: myriad flavors of social democracies.

The underclass will one day realize its own ignorance and political apathy as the main source of its misery, and will reject the clandestine and hypnotizing capitalistic propaganda omnipresent in every aspect of American life, including, Supreme Court opinions, legislation, TV shows, lotteries, commercials, the agenda of political parties, and most surprisingly Christian churches, since the Gospels advocates social welfare rather than wild capitalism. They will no longer accept the cycle of poverty, misery, prisons and the self-righteous condemnation of the rich that the underclass is criminals and rubbish of the society. They will see that they have lost their freedom, and occasionally their lives, generation by generation, to a legalized class warfare conducted and justified under the guise of sanctified terms such as “free market” and “competition.” A competition that the inheritors of wealth, fame and power start miles ahead of the unprivileged in a track legally and cleverly designed by their affluent ancestors, and continuously modified in their favor through lobbies and money-dependant elections, which allows the privileged, few take the most.  Here is one of the thousands examples:

“… Say you overdraw your account by $80 (which Strunt says is about average for an overdrawn check) and you pay a $30 fee … Then you cover the shortfall in a week, the grace period the banks generally give you. To you, it is 30 bucks. To the bank, it’s an annualized 1,955 percent on the $30 it fronted you. That’s right, 1,955 percent. (The math: the $30 fee is 37.5 percent of the $80 overdraft. You use the money for seven days, a daily rate of 5.357 percent. Multiply that by 365).

This rate makes even ‘payday’ loans, which many people consider predatory, look cheap . . . How come you’ve never seen numbers like 1,955 percent on any documents your ‘free checking’ account bank sends you? Because banks have good lawyers and good lobbyists.” (Allan Sloan, Newsweek, November 18, 2002).

The middle class will one day question its position as life long gamblers, bystanders of unreasonable greed and exploitation of the few in hopes of one day ascending to their ranks. The middle class will see in its best interest to end the legalized and camouflaged modern slavery. We will realize that though there will always be irreducible minimum number of criminals who are perhaps genetically inclined to commit crimes, yet many of those who are condemned to prisons, together with their children, can be rehabilitated and transformed into productive citizens. We will learn that we cannot continue increasing penalties and prison population without seriously dealing with the causes of crime. We will discover that social and economic justice and individual freedoms are not mutually exclusive values.