Dubious Demonstrator

I just wanted lunch, but got caught up in a protest for 2 million jailed Americans I don't even know

Media Beat - By Christopher Smart

I had just been kicked off the steps of the Matheson Courthouse on State Street by an armed bailiff, who insisted the courthouse steps were somehow private property.

It's the little things that really piss me off.

The burly bailiff wasn't going to take any nonsense. He had mistaken me for a protester, and warned that I had better get my ass off the steps, toot sweet. "Private property?" I asked rhetorically. This is the state courthouse. And I'm a state taxpayer. I tend to get indignant about stuff like that.

On the other hand, I've been around cops long enough to know you don't argue with them. I could stand my ground and get arrested, but it wouldn't prove anything. And I was getting hungry.

Actually, I had been hungry for some time, and the little demonstration on the steps of the Matheson Courthouse to protest the fact that there are now 2 million people in American prisons and jails just happened to be on the way to lunch-sort of. Carol Gnade, the director of ACLU-Utah, had set up the lunch so she could fi11 me in on some bad legislation gaining steam on Capitol Hill.

Interestingly, Carol had wanted to eat at Bambara, the upscale restaurant in Hotel Monaco where the bourgeoisie break bread. We'd just walk over from the courthouse. Still, it seems that when you're going to be talking about people's rights being violated and subversive outrage, it's better done at someplace like Red Iguana. But I try to stay flexible.

As I walked up the courthouse steps, I was imagining the kinds of unpronounceable French words they would use to describe their luscious salads at Bambara. Just then, I caught sight of a poster-the one with a pointing Uncle Sam that reads, "I Want You." The poster was used during World War II to push the enlistment program. But this Uncle Sam said, "I Want You in Prison." The reference, of course, was to the so-called "War on Drugs" and federal mandatory minimum prison sentences.

I thought, good. Maybe we can use the illustration in City Weekly. But no sooner had I taken a poster from one of the organizers than the bailiff was ordering us off the steps.

Excuse me, I said.

Off the steps, he bellowed.

I'm not arguing, I said. I just want to know why I can't stand on these steps.

It's private property, he said, and you're impeding the flow of traffic.

What are you going to do in the face of such ignorant authority?

Down on the sidewalk, I met Carol. She was one of only about a dozen people at the demonstration. Well, I said, scanning the turnout, doesn't look like too many people care about prison inmates.

Carol grimaced. I don't think they realize what it costs and what ridiculous public policy it is, she said. There are so many people in prison and so many more productive things we could be doing.

Like lunch, I said.

Sorry, she said. I've got to cancel. I have a meeting with the governor.

Are you kidding? I asked.

Well, she said, I could have told the governor I was having lunch with Chris Smart and didn't have time for him, but I didn't.

Oh, great. First I get thrown off the courthouse steps, and then I get the Monica Lewinsky treatment-from the ACLU, no less. I just wanted lunch.

I recovered enough to ask Carol why nobody seems to give a damn about the number of people in American prisons, when someone else piped up. You take a 21-year-old kid and put him away for 10 years, he will come out dysfunctional, she said. Her name was Suzanne Cunningham, and she said she was with Families Against Mandatory Minimums. That person may never again become a productive member of society, she said.

I asked her why she-was standing out on the sidewalk on a blustery day protesting.

I want to express my concern for human life, she said. Too many lives are being wasted.

The protest, it turned out, coincided with protests in 34 other cities across the country. They were coordinated by a group called The November Coalition. According to its website, www.november.org, half the people in U.S. prisons and jails are non-violent offenders. In 1960, there were about 200,000 people behind bars in the United States. In the last 40 years, that number has increased tenfold, while the population has only doubled. In other words, we're incarcerating about five times as many people now as we did back when John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you ... "

Mary Ann Johnstone and Marilyn Carrion from the Prisoner Information Network put together the demonstration at the Matheson Courthouse. Mary Ann said it was the first time she had organized a protest. I asked her why she was doing it. She seemed to be searching for a statistic that might bring it home-as though any could. People don't care about prisoners until they know someone who is locked up and what the toll really is. I imagined being in prison with the burley bailiff as my guard.

Get off the steps. This is private property.

Excuse me.

Get back into your cell, or I'll throw you into solitary.

What a nightmare.

There are 2 million Americans incarcerated in the United States, Mary Ann finally said. That makes up 25 percent of all the people in jails in the entire world, yet we only have 5 percent of the world's population. What is wrong with this picture?

No doubt, we are the world's leading jailer. It's a growth industry, they say. Jailing Americans is such a profitable gig that now private corporations are going into the business. At $25,000 a year to house each inmate, that's $50 billion we're spending on keeping people locked up. That's $50 billion every year, and growing.

If that isn't enough to spoil your lunch, nothing is.