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January 29, 2008 - Crossville Chronicle (TN)

Column: Why Are All These People In Jail?

By Emerson Abts, Chronicle contributor

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You have to wonder why, when you see the statistics, the U.S. holds 750 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. You have to wonder why our rate of locking up should so far exceed the world average of some 166 per 100,000.

You have to wonder why we are far ahead of Russia, which holds the distinction of having the second-highest number of imprisoned persons, per capita.

Some answers come rather quickly. Back in the Nixon era, we were admonished to Get Tough on Crime. The everyday expression was "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

And we did.

But who were these miscreants, these terrible people who deserved only to rot in prison? Well, first of all, they were victims of the so-called War on Drugs.

Marijuana, a rather harmless stimulant and pain-killer, was demonized as the destroyer of the nation's youth. We simply had to protect our young people from this evil plant. States imposed mandatory stiff sentences upon those caught using, growing or selling this "grass."

Dealers especially, and especially those peddling the Devil Weed on the street, were sentenced to long prison terms by judges who had no recourse but to impose the number of years mandated by legislators.

Cocaine has been a popular recreational drug for many years. We got tough on the crime of using coke. Only there was a discrepancy in our sentencing -- pure cocaine, used mostly be white people, merits a much lower sentence than the use of crack cocaine, although the effects are much the same. Why the difference? Because crack is used more widely by African Americans than whites.

Which brings up the nasty subject of racism. A far larger percentage of black men are in prison today than whites. Latinos also far outnumber whites in our prisons.

Prisons have become warehouses for putting unwanted people, especially males. We lock them up and we forget them.

You ask, "But what about other crime? What about theft, robbery, murder? Are not the minority races more addicted to violence than whites?" One response is to show that prosecutors are far more likely to bring serious charges against minority citizens.

Do you remember Jena, LA, and the prosecutor there, who charged black students with attempted murder after a schoolyard fight?

I recall what it was like in Cincinnati in 1968 after Martin Luther King's assassination. I broke the court imposed curfew and drove down to the courthouse to look at the quick trials going on then. One poor fellow, a black, was accused of looting. He had stolen a hand of bananas.

The judge in his wisdom said, "We have agreed that every crime must have a minimum sentence. You are sentenced to three years in prison for theft."

And so we hold the world's record for the number of our citizens packed away in prison.

Thomas Geoghegan, writing in The American Prospect, comments about all the disease that is festering in our crowded jails and prisons. He writes of MRSA, a staph infection that is raging in lockups. MRSA shows up first in boils, then it starts to eat flesh. It comes, according to Geoghegan, from overcrowding and lack of medical care. Even as the epidemic rages in Chicago jails, the county board has cut the medical staff.

In Russia, there is a similar epidemic exacerbated by prison overcrowding. This epidemic is of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Both epidemics have spread to the non-imprisoned population.

One wonders whether we will one day try to live through another pandemic like the flu epidemic of the last century.

Two things come to mind as responses to the vast overcrowding of America's prisons. First, we might build more jails to house more people with less crowding. This, of course, is being done in many places. It is soon to be done right here in Cumberland County.

I think a much better idea would be for us to largely empty our prisons. Reserve the space for violent criminals, robbers and thieves. Offer probation to the addicts and the casual users of drugs.

Rehabilitation works, and the possibility of freedom might help alleviate some of the bitterness and anger so many prisoners feel.

Reader, by now you know that I have no magic solution to our prison problems.

Do you?

This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice, an organization composed of representatives from various churches in the area, and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in "Lion and the Lamb" columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff.

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