“Man was born free,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau 250 years ago, “and he is everywhere in chains.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, Rousseau’s words have been cycling through my mind. I am thankful for the tremendous freedom of movement, association and speech I have as a citizen of this country (even as I join others in fighting to preserve those liberties from powerful forces working to curtail them). And I am tied in a knot contemplating the meaning of those freedoms in what Joseph Hallinan has called a “prison nation,” where we’ve built 50 new prisons each year for the last two decades.
It’s hard to get accurate current information, as the release of data is slow, but according to a 2003 report from the research section of the British Home Office, the U.S. has both the highest incarceration rate in the world (5 times the U.K.’s, for instance) and the largest prison population (in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 7 million of us were “under correctional supervision,” 2.4 million behind bars and the rest on probation or parole). Justice also reported that in 2003, the aggregate annual local, state and federal spending on incarceration totaled $185.5 billion, $32 billion from the feds alone. (As a reality check, $32 billion is slightly more than the president’s entire budget request for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs that same year.)
As I learn and write more about this prison nation, I am awestruck at the amazing people who open their hearts and minds to this problem, and especially to those directly affected by our morally and financially expensive national addiction. Here are a few people to be thankful for:
I’ve written before about Holler to the Hood (H2H) and the Thousand Kites project. Early next month, H2H will record its annual Calls From Home, a one-hour radio program of greetings from friends and family to their incarcerated loved ones. Calls from Home will be recorded on December 12 in Whitesburg, Kentucky as H2H opens its toll-free line (888-396-1208) to families across the country from 6-11pm EST. The broadcast will be released as an edited one-hour version available free on December 14th to non-commercial radio stations and as a shorter house party version for grassroots groups. If you know families who’d like to record a message or radio programmers who can use the show, please tell them about it.
I’ve recently reconnected with Judith Tannenbaum, a wonderful writer. I’m immersed in Disguised as a Poem, her nuanced, humane, brave book about her four years teaching poetry to prisoners at San Quentin. I am grateful to her for writing it. I highly recommend it, just in time for the holidays.
Finally, I’m thankful for the attorneys who released to NPR the first-ever tapes of secret military tribunals at Guantanamo. Listen to them to hear prisoners who are learning for the first time why they are being held. The constitutional protections for which I am grateful don’t apply there, of course. Here’s an excerpt from NPR’s coverage, describing one prisoner’s hearing two years ago:
Hadj Boudella, one of the other detainees, tells the military panel at his tribunal that this is the first time he’s heard some of the accusations against him.
“I’ve been here for three years, and these accusations were just told to me,” Boudella says. “Nobody or any interrogator ever mentioned any of these accusations you are talking to me about now.”
What’s striking is that, despite not knowing fully why they’re being held, enduring open-ended detentions and sometimes harsh interrogations, the detainees on these audio tapes express faith that truth will prevail. Boudella tells the panel that his lawyers—at the Boston firm Wilmerhale—sent him a letter telling him not to participate in the tribunal for fear of incriminating himself.
“I want to show you that I am really innocent, and I want you to see I can defend myself,” Boudella says on the recording. “If you’re innocent, no matter how people try to cover your innocence, it will come out.”
Today, five years after his arrest, Boudella still has not been charged.
It seems to me the most profound way we can express gratitude for our freedom is to ensure that it is not rooted in a punitive, abusive national political culture. This Thanksgiving, I’m offering praise and thanks for those who have the courage and heart to remind us we are born free, and becoming all too used to the prevalence of chains.