Justice Isn’t Just
I miss my brother.
I haven’t seen my brother, Jon, since I was fifteen.
I can distinctly remember his last visit to the house I lived in with my mother. He seemed… well. A troubled man, one who had been in trouble with the law consistently in his youth, had secured a good job, had a wife, a stepdaughter, and would have a baby in the near future. Now in his late thirties, he seemed to have carved a niche for himself where he could really just be happy. We were ecstatic that he’d finally reached a spot in his life where things were working out for him. Jon, that eternal rapscallion, had reached a point in his life where he was… content.
After he returned to his out-of-state life, fraught with the joys and perils of fatherhood, we expected that we had lots of time in which to go see him. I was busy with high school, there was never enough money to go traveling to see him… but who cares? I’d see him again.
One day, in April of 2000, the year I was eighteen, my family had some bad news. Jon had broken a law, a very serious law, and had been arrested. While I won’t go into the particulars of his crime, which shocked and horrified us all, what was even more horrific to me was how this nightmare continued to develop. I caught updates, spellbound from hundreds of miles away, as my brother was tried and found guilty of his crime. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
I still haven’t seen him.
At least he had lots of company…
Jon’s story isn’t unique. After-all, this country just loves locking people up. Our population, for a major world power, is relatively small. About 312 million call the Land of the Free home– but a large portion of us are decidedly not free. Four years ago, in 2008, the number of people in the United States behind bars was 2.3 million. This seems like a small portion of our society, but when you look on a global scale, this is insane.
We only have 5% of the world’s population living between our borders. However, crazily enough, fully 25%– one quarter– of the world’s incarcerated are in American prisons. If you count just the adults in the US, 1 in 100 Americans are imprisoned. We lock enough people up to populate a small nation. No other country surpasses us in locking up our citizens. Why?
Protect the rich, lock up the poor.
Ostensibly we lock up people in order to keep the rest of us safe from the people who commit heinous crimes. We are told, of course, that criminals can’t be with society until they’ve done time and become “rehabilitated.” This, of course, is pure poppycock. After all, if people who commit crimes that affect all of us, numerous bank executives would have been prosecuted and locked up in an effort to “rehabilitate” those who perpetrated the Great Recession that has had global repercussions.
As of yet, many of these people still have their jobs, getting bonuses that would feed a family of four fine caviar for the rest of their lives. In the meanwhile, the poor people who commit crimes get harsh sentences that ruin their lives. Take Roy Brown, for instance, a homeless 54-year-old man who robbed a bank in Louisiana. As he went into the bank, he put his hand under his jacket, feigning a firearm. After informing the teller that he was robbing the bank, she handed over a thick stack of bills. Removing $100 and handing the rest back, he explained that he was hungry and needed the money to stay at a detox center and get food.
He left, but then, consumed with guilt, turned himself into the local authorities for the crime. He was tried and sentenced to an astounding 15 years in prison.
How is it that those who defraud millions of people to the tune of billions of dollars walk free while we fill our jails with the hungry, sick, and desperate? The justice system is supposed to protect the everyday citizens of our country, yet somehow we see very little protection for the poor. But fuck with a banks money? You become the one who is fucked.
Let’s lock up all the minorities! Then all real Americans will be safe.
Part of the problem, of course, is the overwhelmingly racist nature of our justice system. It is a very sad fact that most incarcerated Americans are minorities. The majority of prisoners are overwhelmingly black or Latino males, oppressed classes that are driven into financial desperation by the institutions that are invested in keeping them oppressed.
Many, if not most, of the “offenses” that got these people in prison are drug-related. Many incarcerated folk, driven to desperation by income inequality and high unemployment, turn to drug trade or just using drugs to escape their woes. Other countries, such as Portugal, choose to look at the disease of addiction as an actual disease (and thus cutting in half the rate of drug use) while we still, draconically, lock up people too sick to stop themselves from using.
Tough love? Or just unfair?
Not all minorities locked up are users, however. Some are guilty of nothing more than being different. By now many of us know about CeCe McDonald, the black transwoman who made the fatal mistake of defending herself from a group of white cisfolk. She is currently locked up in solitary confinement, a situation that the ACLU has said is torture happening in our very backyards. She is charged with second degree murder, which seems a far greater injustice than the “crime” she committed. Someone attacked her with a deadly weapon, she killed that person in self-defense, and now she is in solitary confinement.
What makes it necessary to separate her from society? Is it because she is dangerous? Or is it because she is Other? Is it because she is black and trans?
Of course it is. Many times we don’t lock people up because they are “criminals.” We lock them up because we don’t want to look at them. CeCe McDonald is locked up because she survived and a white ciswoman died.
How can we support a system that does this?
The lie we are told, of course, is that these people need to be separated from us, and that prison will turn them into better people. This blithely ignores the fact, of course, that 67% of US prisoners re-offend in either new ways or go ahead, once free, to commit the exact same crimes they committed before. So if not rehabilitation, what is the real goal of the prison industrial complex?
Money, of course.
A little-known fact is that imprisoning Americans is a very expensive, and therefore profitable, game for investors to play. A billion dollar industry taken advantage of by private companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America, we are locking people up and millionaires are taking money from the US government in order to do it.
It’s recently become very much public that Wells Fargo benefits from the prison industrial complex, an industry that prominent writer Glenn Greenwald has called the bank’s “prison cash cow.” Who knows which private investor is benefiting by Roy Brown’s incarceration? By CeCe’s? By Eric’s? By my brother’s?
Why do people get richer by locking people in a cage?
It’s definitely not political, right?
Our government continually decries the use of prison in other countries to stifle political opponents. The US routinely criticizes China on its history of human rights abuses, to include incarcerating people who have views opposed to the status quo. Political prisoners in China horrify us, yet we never ever stop to think if some of the people incarcerated in our system are actually locked up on a politically motivated basis.
Meet Eric McDavid.
A former member of the environmental movement, Eric was caught up in what has now been called the “Green Scare,” nothing short of an attempt by the US government to silence dissidents who wanted to make the world a better place. In order to find something to charge Eric with, an informant was placed in his circles. After initiating a romantic relationship with Eric, the informant maneuvered him and bullied him into assisting her with planning illegal acts, which were videotaped. He was arrested, and thanks to the testimony of “Anna”, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He didn’t commit a thing, but was merely lured into a situation that any sane person would identify as entrapment.
What many don’t realize is that our Justice system doesn’t really protect our populace. It protects the State. Its laws, its policies, and its methods of law enforcement often are designed merely to keep those in power– and the corporations who pull politicians’ strings in order to destroy our environment– firmly in power. People are locked up not to protect those around us, but the oligarchs and authoritarian leaders who run our country.
I will always miss my brother.
So in the end, we see that the State scoops up poor people, people stricken with the disease of addiction, ethnic and sexual minorities, and political dissidents and lock them away from their loved ones for years while rich people profit from it. Our prison system, used to keep things “safe and orderly” for the white and the rich, is nothing less than a corrupt system of oppression and death, as the people incarcerated are often subjected to violent crime in prisons, to include rape and murder.
I never asked my brother the horrors he experienced in prison. I didn’t want to know. Did my brother get brutalized by fellow prisoners? By prison guards? The very idea terrified and sickened me.
I think what I regret most was that I didn’t communicate more with him while he was imprisoned. I didn’t write him enough letters, and I didn’t ask him enough questions, and I didn’t tell him I loved him enough. Unfortunately, I don’t ever get to tell him.
Jon got released early on good behavior. After 11 years of bouncing around in the prison system, he was finally free, though confined to the city limits of the town where he lived. He started to rebuild his life, got a job, got a home, and learned how to be around others again.
One day last summer, as he hiked a hill in intense heat, Jon took pictures of the nature around him and sat down in order to text those pictures to a friend of his.
He was found shortly thereafter, sitting on the trail in mid-text. He was dead. He was in his forties.
The cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, but finally we got the coroner’s report and it became clear. His arteries were very clogged, and he died because blood wasn’t reaching his organs efficiently enough to cool him. Why were they clogged? Inactivity and an unhealthy diet, most likely due to the 11 years of prison food he consumed.
He died six months after his release. I hadn’t gotten a chance to go visit him yet, because I assumed we had the rest of our lives in order to reconnect, to reacquaint ourselves with each other, and to tell each other we loved each other.
I love you, Jon, and that love makes me so angry.
In the end, I look back at what happened with Jon’s incarceration, and I am filled with desperate sadness and endless rage. My brother was stolen by the State from my family. My brother was taken from us for 11 heartbreaking years, and just when we thought we had him back, the State, indirectly, killed my brother.
I am supposed to be able to tell him I love him but I can’t.
Jon, instead of enriching our lives with his vibrant sense of humor and his love for life, instead enriched the bank account of some investor somewhere who will use the profits from his incarceration to perpetuate this system of abuse and oppression.
I dare you to look at the stories of CeCe, Roy, Eric, and Jon, and tell me that our justice system is just. It’s time to stop this cycle of hatred of our own people. It’s time say “there are other ways to fix addiction. There are other ways to help our mentally ill. We have to stop entrapment. We have to kill racism. We have throw off the yoke of the State and stop letting them torture our friends and families.
It’s time, in short, to end prisons.
To learn more about supporting the victims of the prison industrial complex, click here.
This post is dedicated to Jon. I love you.