Friday, July 4, 2008

Are prisons obsolete?

Angela Davis (whom I had the privilege and honour of meeting a couple of years ago in Utah of all places) has written a book with the aforementioned title. I am going to be reading it soon, along with a host of other amazing books. It was recommended by my cousin, a college professor in Virginia, who is now speaking to his students about the econimic cost of prisons.

There are some 2.3 million or so individuals incarcerated in America. At a rate of about $25,000 a year per resident, that is some serious money. The question is, do they all belong there?

A family member is awaiting sentencing for crimes committed during a seemingly innocuous 6 month probation for minor infractions - you know, hanging with the wrong crowd sort of thing. I am not excusing the behavior by any stretch, but I am curious to know whether a mental health screening took place as noted in the prisoner handbook of the jail where he awaits sentencing. He had confided to me that he thought he was schizophrenic right before these crimes were committed. Unfortunately, the family with whom he lives do not believe in mental health counseling, medication or anything else that would have prevented this individual's demise and subsequent sucking into the system that is known as the criminal justice system.

This family member was raised in the same family as a national honor student, a second in state track star and an advanced middle school student. What gives? This family member worked at McDonald's in high school and staged a walkout leading to his termination after the minimum wage increase was not honored. What awaits this individual after some 2+ years in a federal prison? The same fate that awaits many ex prisoners, particularly those who are felons. This family member is so very close to my heart. He is indeed the same silly one who brings me pies in the middle of the night from Burger King when I am having PMS. The same one who gorges on Slurpees, soda, PBJ sandwiches and cereal in exhorbitant proportions. The one who love shoes, like his mother, who loves music - you should hear his lyrics. The one who couldn't quite seem to fit in. His mother is bi-polar, his father has depression - statistically, he would be prone to depression too. Some 300+ people are praying for this individual whose hearing is on Monday. Perhaps you would care to pray too, now that you know how much he means to me. This is serious business.

Earlier this week, I read in the news of a resourceful Mayor in the city of brotherly love - Philadelphia (incidentally, the first state I came to when immigrating all those years ago - the first time I saw a police officer with a gun in this country) - tired of recidivism and the community fallout from too many broken homes has taken matters into his own hands.

It seems he is having business owners receive tax credits for hiring former prisoners (forgive me, but I don't like the term "ex con" - it has a negative connotation). That city has one of the highest prison populations in the country - I am not quite sure what the Governors (present and former) have done to mitigate this, but as I learned, working as a political appointee to a mayor - grassroots is where it gets done - not on the federal, national or even state level, but on the local levels, through the National League of Cities and Towns, through the National Conference of Mayors and other such amazing organizations.

Why is this subject of such great importance? Let's just say - if caucasians were imprisoned at the rate of our black brothers and sisters, I believe that mitigation would have happened long ago.

Any thoughts out there?

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