Unbreakable's Pearls of Wisdom...

...and Foolish Mutterings


Down the rabbit hole, Texas,
December 06


DECEMBER 16, 2011 2:26PM

Justice, Prisons and the American Way

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A few days ago, I read an excellent post by David Chura entitled The World of Girls and Young Women in Prison. This piece deservedly earned an EP. If you haven’t read it, it is well worth your time. In fact, I was so inspired by it that I decided I would finally write the piece that has been lurking in my sub-conscious for longer than I care to remember.


I’ve been loathe to write about this, partly due to the hits-too-close-to-home nature of the subject and, probably more to the point, because just thinking about it enrages me, so I bat away thoughts of it every time they wing to the front of my mind. I read David’s piece again yesterday to bolster my resolve. I even printed out reams of paper containing the facts I want to use to cogently present my case, in hopes of remaining somewhat detached so that this post doesn’t come off sounding like a major rant. It’s too important a subject to be reduced to a rant; instead, it should be given the thoughtful consideration and careful review worthy of a matter of such grave import.


The matter that weighs so heavily on my mind is the condition of, the deterioration of, the adulteration of the judicial system in the United States of America.


“The judicial system in the United States of America.” Sounds grandiose and lofty, doesn’t it, when it’s phrased just that way? I’m sure that’s exactly what our founding fathers had in mind – something grandiose and lofty… and just – when they crafted the constitution with the Preamble stating the intention to “establish justice… provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” Justice was certainly on their minds when The Bill of Rights was adopted by the states on December 15, 1791.


Certainly, two-hundred and twenty years later, our society has undergone massive shifts and permutations that have stretched thin the fabric of goals and ideals set in motion centuries ago. One would be naïve to believe otherwise; however, the basic principles of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness set forth in the Declaration of Independence should hold firm and true as the underpinning of the enlightened and just society that our forefathers declared and destined us to be.



Fast-forward 200+ years to a burgeoning private prison industry, mandatory sentencing guidelines, Zero Tolerance policies and a whole slew of related judicial ills; and this once grand country boasts the largest prison population in the world. Approximately 1.8 million people are locked up in the US at any given time—that’s equal to the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami. Despite a 20% drop in the rate of violent crime since 1991, the number of people imprisoned has risen by 50%.


Until the 1970’s, US prison population consisted of approximately 110 inmates for every 100,000 people. By the 1990’s that number had jumped to 445 inmates per 100,000; among adult men it averages 1 out of every 100 adult males in the population. This unprecedented increase can be attributed in large part to the War on Drugs, implemented in the 1970’s by Richard Nixon and galvanized in the 80’s by an overzealous Congress which enacted federal mandatory minimum sentences in a misguided attempt to shore up the emotionally-charged battle cry for a “war on drugs.” Consequently, the proportion of drug offenders sentenced to prison ballooned from 79 percent in 1998 to a whopping 93% in 2004. Many are serving inordinately long sentences and receive little or no addiction treatment. Lest you think otherwise, allow me to point out that a large majority of that 93% are not drug kingpins, as one would hope, but are instead nonviolent drug users with addiction problems who would be far better served by fines, community service, and drug treatment programs.


Of the 1.8 million prisoners serving time in the US today:


  • 70% are illiterate
  • Approximately 200,000 suffer from a serious mental illness
  • 60%-80% have a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile, the number of drug-treatment slots in America’s prisons has declined by more than half since 1993



The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex


Despite the fact that more than 1000 new prisons have been constructed in the US over the past twenty years, prison overcrowding remains at critical levels. Prison population continues to grow by 50,000 to 80,000 people per year. To address this serious problem, authorities have turned to private companies, such as Wackenhut Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America—two of the largest private-prison companies in the US. Cell facilities rent for $20-$60 per day with an additional $2.50-$5.50 commission per man/per day. Overcrowded facilities often truck prisoners hundreds of miles throughout the country to private prisons with open beds.


Phone companies are raking in the bucks, too. One single pay phone in prison can generate as much as $15,000 a year. Some phone companies install phones for free. Loved ones of incarcerated individuals sign up with private collect-call enterprises charging as much as $25 for a five-minute call.


Revenue for private companies riding the wave of the Prison Industrial Complex has reached more than $35 billion a year, with a projected growth of 5-10% annually.



Our system is broken and repairing it seems to be an insurmountable task. One has to ask, is anyone even paying attention any more? Allow me to leave you with one single ray of hope—an editorial published in the Baltimore Sun on December 8, 2011, written by  Andre M. Davis of Baltimore, a judge with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. May his words ring loud and clear, and may they herald the beginning of a new day in the halls of justice.


Mandatory minimum sentences impede justice


photo courtesy of 69ergibby





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Thank you for posting this. I agree that far too many are unjustly imprisoned such as those caught with 2 ounces of narcotics-- thank you, Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973--serving 15 years to life for possesion of 2 ounces of product is not only excessive, but a waste of taxpayers money. We are a cold-hearted society. Hope that won't always be the case.
Good post, hon. This needs to be said (again and again and again!)
As with everything else in this country....just follow the money. I have to laugh at the notion that while booze and cigarettes are perfectly legal, pot is against the law. Booze and cigarettes are the cause of more deaths combined than pot ever was, yet we fill our prisons with addictes addected to pot. This is a must read Kim and I'm glad you wrote it today.
Great & important article, Kim. We are just screwing up SO many thing sin this country!!!
Erica - Yes, I read about the Rockefeller Drug Law in all my research yesterday. Cold-hearted society is exactly right. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Safe Bet - thank you - I agree. We have to keep saying it until someone finally listens and does something.

David - Yes, our "drug war" is such a sham and has ruined so many lives, so many families. This piece has been burning in my bones for months now and I don't think I did it justice at all, but it's a start.
Tril - Yes, we are, aren't we? And the consequences are so long lasting, too. I worry about that. A lot. Thanks for reading and for your support.
Thank you for posting with stats and facts to back us up as we take up the cause with you.
A great post here Unbreakable and excellent subject.
How longer is this going to continue??
Yet it does.
Speaking out is the only way.
Lydieth - thank you for coming by to read and for your supportive comment!

Mission - you're right - speaking out against it is an absolute necessity
This is a terrific post. I've been thinking a lot about the prison system: David Dow's Autobiography of an Execution has haunted me, and it haunted my students when I assigned it. We need to be talking about all of the people we have locked away as if they were animals. That's criminal: our criminal justice system.
The system IS broken, I appreciate your writing about it...
The statistics for prisoners who were abused (physically and/or sexually) as children are much higher than the general population as well, for women it jumps to almost 50% who were sexually abused as a child. For men the percentage is much lower, but is thought to be inaccurate due to shame in telling. It is suspected over 75% of Death Row prisoners were victims of abuse as children...with not a sign of rehab or treatment in those prisons. Too many are just hardened by their time in prison, how is that making our society better??
It's not.
The prison system has rapidly become about profit: prisoners earn 12 to 40 cents per hour while at work in prison, while Federal Prison Industries workers earn 23 cents to $1.15 per hour.
There is huge profit having prisoners as workers to keep your company afloat.
Subway, for instance, has prisoners cut cheese and meat.
Sound yummy now?

I too get enraged at the condition of our justice system...we need many more outraged and speaking up!
I don't have much faith in 'justice' in the USA. The prosecutor and the defense attorney work toward one thing and one thing only - VICTORY! They care not one little bit about justice, they only want to win. Put that on top of our archaic laws regarding substances and we have the mess we are in now. Erica, not only are some of us cold hearted, some of us are ignorant. Ignorance is expensive. Great post Unbreakable.
Thank-you. I'm trying to piece something together but I'm having great difficulty reigning in my rant...

You know we're in trouble in California when Texas condemns our "criminal justice system."
Discouraging, depressing statistics, Kim, and there doesn't seem to be any movement toward injecting some sanity into it the system. Thanks for putting this together and presenting it so compellingly. It should be on the cover - here and on Big Salon.
Thank you for taking the time to report on something so important. Along with the corruption on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., this issues really shatters my perception of the United States as "the greatest democracy in history."
I live within walking distance of Sing Sing Prison, so this hits home for me. On Saturday morning, you see people pouring out of the trains, arriving for Visiting Day. I always wonder just how many of the men being visited truly are a danger to our society. (Of course, Sing Sing gets a lot of the violent offenders, unlike many prisons that just filled with people who merely used the wrong intoxicating substance.)

Wonderful post, Kim, about a subject we've managed to keep out of sight. You would think having the largest prison population in the world would fill us with deep shame.
“I always wonder just how many of the men being visited truly are a danger to our society.”-Cranky Cuss

“California leads the nation in sending people on parole back to prison, and parole violators now represent 67% of all admissions to California prisons."


Total recidivism rate in CA-71%.
Lorraine - thank you! I almost feel like I need to spit every time I say the words "justice" system. Maybe we should just leave out the "justice" part and call it "the criminal system". Somehow it seems more appropriate.

Just Thinking - thanks for adding in those important statistics. A big part of the reason we've arrived at the place we're at is because legislators and the courts have taken the human factor out of the equation - makes it a lot easier to process people like so many cattle when they're seen as soul-less entities.

desert_rat - I have no faith in the justice system either. It has nothing to do with justice and it's a disgrace.

AJ - If it wasn't so tragic, that would make me laugh out loud. Texas has NO business pointing fingers at anyone, believe me. We're all in trouble.

Matt - thanks for saying that, Matt. That means a lot to me.

Deborah - I know - I used to be a believer, too. Sad, sad, sad.
Cranky - I agree, there are some people who belong in prison, but somehow we've come to the point of just tossing people in prison because it's easy and politicians want to look tough on crime. My son went to prison for not paying his state surcharge on a DWI. I can't even begin to wrap my mind around a world where that makes any kind of sense. As a nation, we should be deeply, deeply ashamed.
And those people you see pouring in to Sing Sing to visit their loved ones, they get treated like criminals, too. Our judicial system paints with a very broad stroke.

AJ - I read that statistic yesterday when I was preparing for this article. There's a lot of money in parole violators. It's a vicious cycle and the states just keep on making money off of it.
OOPS! The link I posted above is an OLD report. Now, I can’t find the one I meant to link. Sorry.
I also have a son in prison. He broke the law-
and now the law is tryin' to break him.
Tragic doesn't begin to cover it.
In California, it is CCPOA union members who are profiting.

Until the VERY RECENT policy change-allowing for the scheduling of appointments for visits-it took no less than 16 “correction officers” (highest paid in the nation) to process one 3”x3” piece of paper. (A visitor’s pass.) This past week-end, it only took 8. That’s REAL progress.

Meanwhile, back in the public schools, they can’t provide adequate amounts of toilet paper for the children.

I'm going have to control myself now-
I'm starting to feel another rant coming on...
AJ - I controlled myself as I wrote this, but answering the comments has been an entirely different matter. I've zoomed past "in control" to full-on rage, so don't reign yourself in on my account.
I'm so sorry to hear you have a son in prison. Mine is out now and I pray every day that the system never gets him back in its clutches again.
Praying that they don't get him back is also REAL PROGRESS.
Much, much better than praying you get him back alive...
California loses 1 inmate every 7 days. (Death rate.)

Wish I could rate this again.
AJ - Good God! That's a statistic I did not know. Speechless here.
Former Head of Corrections in Texas —
Having examined the California prison system, Doyle Wayne Scott described the conditions therein as “appalling,” “inhumane,” and “unacceptable.” He added: “In more than 35 years of prison work experience, I have never seen anything like it.”
Wonderful, strong post. You've done yeoman's work here and this should be mandatory reading. Well done.
You can read Scott's report, as well as all others prepared for Plata/Coleman at this site:


"Ugly Beds" & other uglies...
And yet for some reason this topic rarely sparks much interest, even on open salon. I believe the lawyers and the judges must take a stand her if we are to see any change. Yet, they are, as a whole, an ambitious and callous bunch who benefit from the prison industry.
It's a closed off world-- the legal system.
We must occupy the "justice' system but very few regard it as a priority. I saw this system up close and it is much worse and more evil that most of us could dream.

We have become a deeply cold blooded society and it's very sad.

Very glad you posted this. I see many articles here trying to address this and they get very little attention-- rates or comments. I see lawyers who just won't take any stand and it makes me sick. Careerism is what they are all about.

I've spoken to so many lawyers in the last few years. All know how broken the system is and yet they just want to get rich or fit in. The lawyers jokes are well earned. But, it is not only the defense lawyers who are shady. There are many corrupt prosecutors and judges and that is not presented in the press for various reasons. And, very few know how they possess immunities that let them get away with murder.
It's a vile and diseased system and most people simply don't give a damn. Thanks for writing this. I hope it gets an editors pick.
Having visited prisons (not in your country, tho) I have some idea of what it's like there, and a face (well, lots of them) to put to the inmates....and staff. (I've run into some good staff. But most are cattle herders, I think.) We in Canada had what sounded like a better system, but law'n'order conservatives have taken over the government and are building bigger & better prisons for a non-existent crime wave, have closed the "farms", and have done some privatizing...
Thank you for this...wish it was an "EP"...The men who wrote the constitution intended it for white land owning men...the ideals went beyond what they envisioned or wanted... which is why we need ammendments. Prison Reform is not popular politically and the privately owned prison investors are not going to care. They can get by with poor facilities, low pay for staff, etc. because no one cares about prisoner's rights or rehibilitation except the families who love them. The US has a higher percentage of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world. That is a travesty, but it will fall behind other national travesties in our nation's priorities: health care, unemployment, education, etc.
AJ - That's a hell of an indictment coming from a colleague and insider in the prison system itself. Scary indeed. And I will definitely check out that website. Thanks.

Scylla - Thanks for your encouragment and kind words. I have tremendous respect for you, so your comments always mean a lot to me.

fernsy - you've spoken some great truths. This is a subject that few want to talk about and God knows no one wants to get into the nuts and bolts of it. Only those of us who have seen the underbelly of the legal system and have had direct experience with its horrors want it to be a topic of discussion, it seems. I understand that to a point, because no one really wants to believe our system is so broken - it's a terrifying thought. I know you will understand when I say that if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears and experienced what you so aptly described as the pure evil of the legal system, I could not have believed it. The corruption runs deep, the money train is deeply entrenched and the evil self-perpetuating.
Thank you, fernsy, for reading and for your insightful comment. I appreciate you and your support.

Myriad - a very discouraging report about what is now happening in your prisons. Where will it end?
Mimetalker -prison reform will never be popular politically. Politicians like to hang their hats on their "tough" stance on crime and the majority of their constituents don't have a clue about the truth about those prisons or the prisoners they are filling up with. The privatization of prisons set us on a course straight to hell. It's big business -lots of people making lots of money, hell, the private prison companies have their own lobbyists to make sure this cash cow doesn't go away. And all at the expense of generations of nameless, faceless "criminals" whose only crime may have been getting caught up in a heartless, money-making system. Because once you start down that road... well, pretty much, you're screwed.
Oh yes, you have it so right. Children can be adjudicated for offenses adults would never have a charge. Teenagers go to jail for nothing but then, it is a money making enterprise, isn't it? Crimes against society and people take the back seat to crimes of personal choice. No victims, no harm, just stupid rules.
Now that so many people find themselves devastated beyond their control because of our desperate economy, I wonder how soon it will be before we re-establish debtors prisons.
I am thinking a debtors prison might be more humane than living under a bridge with no home or possibility of climbing back up to being in the middle class. Why and how could this happen in the most wealthy nation in the world. Simple, no one cares. Imprison rather than address the iniquities? As long as prisons are an INDUSTRY, this is the way it will continue to be.
I believe that literacy programs could have a wonderful impact on the recidivism on criminals currently in prison.
I did read his piece, and now yours.

Please keep writing about this. The secret incarceration society needs to be exposed.
Judging by your breakdwon of the 1.8 million prisoners, I'd say we've got problems with two others systems: the educational system--70% illiteracy is shameful--and the health care industry. Injustice pervades these systems, too, it would appear.
Calico Catherine - it happens because we are a people who are accustomed to taking the path of least resistance. Which is why we would rather fill our prisons to overflowing with people who have commited non-violent, victimless crimes than provide resources to them that would help them lead productive lives. Send them away and forget them - that's the creed we have come to live by.

Anya - I believe that at one time literacy programs in prisons could have been a great tool to rehabilitation. At this point, I think it would be like trying to put out a raging fire with a spray bottle.

Crane - "the secret incarceration society" Indeed.

Jerry - Excellent points and I wholeheartedly agree.
A very timely Reality Call. Thank you, UB, for this enlightening post. Most worthy of a very wide viewing.

This post is fantastic. I've been concerned about the rise of big business running prisons because there's only one reason to do business: build wealth. That means there must be more inmates. Also, knee-jerk voters have made mandatory sentencing too common. Raising awareness around this subject is imparative. Well done.
Fusun - thank you. It's a matter that bears careful scrutiny.

Maureen - You're exactly right - on all points. As an aside, interestingly enough, there was a news story on tonight about Harris County (Houston, TX) Commissioners voting on whether or not to privatize Harris County Jail - which is already one of the worst jails in the country. A 9000 bed facility and Corrections Corp of America is bidding on a management contract to take it over. Sheriff Adrian Garcia is much opposed to the move for a whole host of reasons and says the bottom line for the county's wish to privatize the jail facilities is the almighty dollar.
I love this piece - it hits close to home for me, too. Justice is a lofty and inviting word, but it certainly doesn't describe what is happening in our country today. What we have is a legal system - not a justice system.

As a victim of violent crimes, I have studied why we've had the violent crime drop since 1991 (Freakonomics, best source of explanation, cumulative affect of Roe v. Wade) as well as the narrowing of resources for those affected by addiction and how that has contributed to the burgeoning of the "prison industrial complex" as you so wonderfully coined it here.

When I think of "getting justice" - that the people who hurt me would end up in this system - it does little to console me. While the initial thought of having them off the street is in itself a consolation, my hope for healing for all involved is quickly dashed by the facts of what awaits anyone going to prison today. It just perpetuates a cycle instead of enacting penalties with no real hope of reformation for the souls involved.

If we're all interconnected, as I believe, what hope is there of evolving as a race if we can't love each other enough to help one another - even those who have offended?

Dear Sparking - so good to see you here! Thank you for your insightful and thought-provoking comment. I agree with what you said about it being a "legal" system rather than a "justice" system. Our courts, our prisons, our jails, prosecutors, probation and parole departments are shattered and distorted in so many directions that what we have more closely resembles a fishing line that has "bird-nested" than anything even remotely connected to logic, reason, or even simple cause and effect.

It's sad, that's for sure. Sad and scary.
Everything and everyone is a commodity. Each sold to the lowest bidder. What a country! the wheels of commerce must keep rolling, Finding new markets,creating a need and then filling athe created need. What a country!
Catherine - What a country indeed.
Is this a great country, or what?