For as smart as we are, we humans aren’t very bright sometimes. We do stupid things. And sometimes the stupidest things we do seem to us to be the most brilliant… while we’re doing them. I would suggest that, more often than not, the stupidest things that we do collectively, while we’re doing them, appear to be advancements or progress or solutions when, in fact, their results we later realize are devastating.
Take for instance our advance into the “nuclear age.” It takes brilliant scientists and engineers to split an atom, to create nuclear power, to build nuclear power plants. But, at the same time, it takes some real fools to split atoms, to create tools for genocide, to build the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and let millions of gallons of radioactive water bleed into our oceans day after day, week after week, year after year.
See what I mean? For as smart as we are, we aren’t very bright sometimes. Our advance into the nuclear age is just one example of something very foolish presented as brilliance and progress… until we see the consequences. And I would suggest to you that our recourse to prisons and imprisonment for the last couple hundred years is another example of catastrophe presented as progress.
We think of courts and prisons as fixtures that save us from a world of violence and mayhem. Courts and prisons represent order to us. From this view, only crazy people would suggest that we abolish courts and prisons and return to chaos and madness, a world of insecurity and disorder… right? Well, we are certainly conditioned to think that way.
As far as courts go, we have the “rule of law,” and we have brilliant legal minds who develop those laws and rules of evidence and procedures to make sure the innocent get exonerated and the guilty get what they deserve. Those brilliant legal minds that bring us the court system may be as brilliant as the scientists and engineers who figured out how to split the atom and build the Fukushima Power Plant.
So, without getting into details about how courts function improperly– because, if we did that, we might be here all day debating that –I would like to simply point out how little we know about the criminal courts. Most of us have never so much as gone to a courthouse to watch a criminal trial. Those who have the most experience in the system are those who work in criminal justice, those who get arrested, and those who are unfortunate enough to get picked for jury duty. That’s about it. And I would suggest to you that even most of those folks don’t know all that’s going on. Consider, most court employees probably attend only a specific part of the process; criminal defendants and their families rely on an attorney to explain what goes on; and as far as jurors go, most of the action occurs when they aren’t in the room, as legal professionals debate as to what the jury gets to know and what they don’t get to know.
My point is, most of us have absolutely no direct experience with the criminal justice system. We have never seen it in action. We don’t have a clue as to what takes place.
Yet, we have very strong opinions about the process. We have a very high degree of confidence that the criminal courts are fair and functional and incredibly reliable. Studies have been done again and again that show how confident we are in the integrity of the courts, and those studies compare our confidence to our beliefs about how the courts operate. Turns out, those with the highest confidence appear to know the least about how courts really function while those who are most skeptical of the process have more accurate knowledge about how it actually works.
The more you know, the less you trust the courts. That means we have the current system as it is for the same reason we have the Fukushima disaster: because we’re gullible and we don’t pay attention.
Some quick stats. Almost 95% of those who get arrested plead guilty to one crime or another. Only 5% go to trial and insist they are innocent. Of that 5%, only about 5% of them get found not guilty. So, that’s 5% of 5%. That means if you’re arrested, whoever you are, whatever you did or didn’t do, you have a one-quarter-of-one-percent chance of getting found not guilty and avoiding prison.
I would suggest that this figure doesn’t necessarily reflect the real efficiency of the system to always arrest the guilty so much as it reflects the uninformed confidence that we have in police and prosecutors and crime-lab experts when we get seated on juries. The conviction rate reflects our confidence, and that conviction rate then reinforces confidence in the system.
I find it strange that we have this greater confidence in the lawyers and politicians who run the courts than we have in the lawyers and politicians who run for congress or operate other branches of government, particularly when you consider that most of the lawyers and politicians that get to congress or other branches of government were, themselves, prosecutors and judges. While we think of courts as somehow immune from corruption and incompetence, the courts almost always employ the very unscrupulous scoundrels who later advance to offices where they provoke our dissatisfaction with them. Perhaps it is unreasonable to presume that all of those scoundrels were somehow more noble during their careers in the courts.
For as smart as we are, we humans aren’t very bright sometimes– like when we let scientists split atoms or allow lawyers to operate powerful systems while we’re not looking, and just trust that everything will work out okay.
Nothing ever works as advertised.
Which brings us to the topic of prison.
Just like with courts, we all have strong beliefs about how prisons operate, ideas about the people held there, about the competency of administrators, about the prison staff and what they do. But, again, just like with the courts, I have to ask you: what do you know about prison? What have you seen with your own eyes?
I have written about prison for decades from inside the prison, and I cannot stress enough just how bewildered and enraged you reasonable people in the outside world would feel if you knew what really goes on in prison… and if you knew what doesn’t. Those fences are there as much to keep you out as they are to keep me in.
The real crime of prison is not the extreme abuses and brutality inflicted upon captives by their captors– although that happens. The real crime is in the vast scale of this mundane nothingness, the pointlessness of all of these years and years of captivity for millions. It’s the scale of it all. The real crime of prison is that most of the people confined here are either drug addicts, or are mentally ill, or are desperate folks who could not find work and did something desperate in a world run by lawyers and politicians who ruined everything… and locking up these folks just to lock them up solves nothing.
Perhaps if we locked up the lawyers and politicians we would be pursuing a real solution to our collective problem.
So, I say all of that to say this: There are people who are most informed about what courts and prisons do, who have lost all confidence in those who mismanage these systems, and they advocate “abolishing” prisons. Now, when I say the words “abolishing prisons,” I suspect many people cringe with apprehension. You might imagine a world where crimes and violence go unpunished, a spiral into chaos. To be clear, no one advocates that. No one wants to feel unsafe and afraid.
You can no more say that prison abolitionists want madness than you can say that folks who push for abolishing nuclear power want to go back to living in caves and getting light from open fires.
Nobody advocates that.
Just like abolitionists of nuclear power propose a more sensible alternative moving forward, prison abolitionists too advocate a more sensible alternative moving forward.
When nuclear abolitionists point to the catastrophe of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant belching millions of gallons of radioactive water into our oceans, reasonable people keep open minds and want to hear rational alternatives. Likewise, there is a catastrophe happening where a broken prison complex is belching millions of scarred humans back into your community, and I would suggest to you that reasonable people would keep open minds and want to hear rational alternatives.
Some famous dead guy once said that if you want to solve a problem, you must approach the problem with different thinking than the thinking that created the problem. And another famous dead guy said that if you want to get out of a hole, the first rule is that you must stop digging.
The prison complex is a problem and we must approach that problem with different thinking than the thinking that created the prison complex in the first place. In a number of ways, the prison complex has us in a very deep and intimidating hole… and the first rule is to stop digging.
We might not be able to do anything about the radioactive water pouring out of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, but we are far from powerless to stop the prison complex from belching out radioactivity of the social variety into our world. If we truly care about our world and its future, then we have to get informed and get active. We have to stop the preventable catastrophes that are currently occurring.
The prison complex is one of those.
Categories: Sean Swain