Sonnet 29 When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, W. Shakespeare
On Sunday I will have my first contact visit with my youngest son since his incarceration on December 5th. He was recently removed to a prison facility in Chino, California, about 6 six hours away. His case is on appeal, the stop and subsequent arrest unwarranted, the crime non-violent. He was in “Reception” at San Quentin for the past five and a half months , Reception being the first step in the state imprisonment system, supposedly lasting between one month and three, as it is a harsh time of almost solitary confinement, in which you are in your cell 23 hours a day, with 15 minutes every 3rd day for a cold shower, no television or radio, a maximum of two hours per month of visits to the law library, and no contact visits. Visits, in fact, had to be made by telephone, and the lines were only open on Wednesdays and Sundays between 8 and 10 a.m., but most of the time you would call and reach a busy signal, or it would ring and then disconnect. My last visit at San Quentin was on May 3rd, and I couldn’t get another appointment until the 29th, but when I arrived I was told he had been moved.
The system is a very punishing one, designed to humiliate and denigrate not only the prisoner but his/her visitors and family, almost as if you were guilty because you had a friend or relative behind bars. I know this because I practiced criminal law as an attorney for close to thirty years, and the treatment of prisoners (and their families/friends) has not improved in that time or in the ten years since I retired, but rather worsened, as we are now imprisoning more and more people, in a continuing exercise of the Jim Crow system, as Michelle Alexander so well explains in her book, The New Jim Crow. My experience as an attorney was that Jim Crow practices never died and were alive and well as far north as New Jersey, where I lived and practiced. Even then we could see a terrible increase in inmate populations, and the disproportionate prosecution and sentencing of people of color, including, then and now, minors.
Years ago I watched the film Fortune and Men’s Eyes, and it had a tremendous impact on me. It is based on a play by Canadian writer John Herbert about sexual slavery and violence in prison. It was difficult to cast and to produce, because it shows the seamy underside of the system. As someone who has made it her life’s work to show and fight that seamy underside, whether it be about the cruelties of the immigration system (worldwide), the plight of refugees and of occupied peoples everywhere, including Palestine, and the criminalization of poverty and homelessness, right here in the land of plenty, where the veterans and the hungry children, rather than the deer and the buffalo, roam, I can tell you that for me it is frequently a case of “kill the messenger” because people would rather NOT find out what is going on, so they can continue to do nothing about any of it. The play eventually led, by the way, to the creation of the Fortune Society, an advocacy and support organization for prisoners reentering society after incarceration.
I belong and contribute to such initiatives as The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate convicted prisoners through the use of DNA evidence. I have seen quite a few reversals of convictions, one of the most damning (as far as our society is concerned) being that in the Central Park jogger case, where prosecutors bullied kids into pleading guilty. I remember the furor at the time; I was a frequent visitor to Central Park, and the story of these five Latino and Black kids and their apparent brutal beating and rape of a white jogger was constantly in the news. Only years later when another prisoner admitted his own guilt and DNA tests proved without a doubt that these kids had not committed the crime, were they exonerated, but the years and years of imprisonment can never be returned to a prisoner. Seehttp://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/05/central-park-five-rape-case
I am also writing to prisoners whom my son has met, and who may have no one writing to them; two of them are in San Quentin. One of them is a penpal from program founded by Sharon Martinas that I joined last month called The Human Rights Pen Pal Program. Most of the prisoners who have requested letters have participated in the hunger strikes and other human rights protest actions throughout the state. My penpal has been in solitary confinement for most of his life.
We are in the midst of a wave of police and official abuse of and slaying of people of color and of state violence. In our monthly vigils in Oakland, we now read the names not only of those dead in Iraq or Afghanistan, but those who are victims of state violence, one every 28 to 36 hours, day after day.http://epicalc.org/
This, unfortunately, is not unprecedented. When I first went to interpret for torture survivors at Fort Benning, Georgia, I heard many tales of the sale of slaves in some of the historical sites in the area. Families were separated, lives were destroyed at the auction block, and many who are now respected because of their wealth and power made their start in this execrable business. Yet today our prison industry is an industry worldwide, with no downside. You get free labor, the prisoners pay (at excessive prices) for the privilege of being enslaved, and we throw away tens of thousands of lives every day. Who invests in these things, you ask?
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289
Eric Schlosser wrote well about the prison industrial complex in the 1998 issue of the Atlantic Monthly: The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation’s criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass “tough-on-crime” legislation—combined with their unwillingness to disclose the true costs of these laws—has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties. The inner workings of the prison-industrial complex can be observed in the state of New York, where the prison boom started, transforming the economy of an entire region; in Texas and Tennessee, where private prison companies have thrived; and in California, where the correctional trends of the past two decades have converged and reached extremes. In the realm of psychology a complex is an overreaction to some perceived threat. Eisenhower no doubt had that meaning in mind when, during his farewell address, he urged the nation to resist “a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/the-prison-industrial-complex/304669/
Of course, all of my work for prisoners did not prepare me for being the mother of an imprisoned man, a homosexual man who was brutally attacked while awaiting trial by another prisoner in what was clearly a homophobic crime. In disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, my son has joined the legions of the harshly punished, and I am just one more of the mothers protesting, with tears at the ready, a system of greed and cruelty that surely damns us all.