It’s that time of year again: piped-in Christmas carols and tinsel thick on the ground, toy marketing at fever pitch, when the good people at Thousand Kites record their annual “Calls from Home” special, broadcasting messages from families on the outside to loved ones locked up. (Read on to learn how to take part.) And oh, yes, the Department of Justice has issued its annual report on Incarceration Nation.
Issued last week, the report unsurprisingly revealed that punishment continues to be this nation’s most reliable growth industry. We’ve had the highest incarceration rate on the planet for quite a while now—many times other industrialized nations’—yet our punishment industry keeps outdoing itself: by the close of 2006, 751 out of 100,000 of us were held in prison or jail, up from 737 in 2005. According to The Sentencing Project:
[T]here are now more than a half million persons in prison or jail nationally for a drug offense. From a figure of 41,100 prisoners incarcerated for a drug offense in 1980, there has been a 1200% increase resulting from the “war on drugs,” leading to an estimated 532,400 drug offenders today. This figure includes an estimated 249,400 persons in state prisons, 93,800 in federal prison, and 189,200 in local jails.
Doing the math, the New York Times reports that “About one in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised release at the end of last year.”
Download the report yourself, and while you read it, consider this question: What does it say about each of us, how is each of us contaminated, by becoming a nation of punishers? Sip eggnog if you can keep it down, and as a soundtrack, I recommend U2’s “Peace on Earth.”
Statistics alone can’t tell the all-too-human story. For that, you need to check out Thousand Kites December 11th “Calls from Home,” a national radio broadcast for prisoners. As I’ve written before (scroll down on the right and click on “Incarceration Nation” under “Blog Categories” to read more), an increasingly large number of prisoners are consigned to SuperMax prisons (some of them run for private profit), far from home and deprived of human contact 23 hours a day. Listening to the brave messages sent by their parents, partners and children will break your heart much harder than another rerun of It’s A Wonderful Life, and as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov said, “Ein lev shalem k’lev shavur,” “There is no pure (or whole) heart like a broken heart.” In the words of another great teacher, Leonard Cohen, “That’s how the light gets in.”
Go to Thousand Kites’ Web site to find out how to record a message for “Calls from Home,” how to spread the word, and how to access the show once it’s complete. After the holidays, keep checking the site for other things we can to bring those statistics down and save our national soul.