Thousand Kites, the project started by artists to awaken our national conscience to the realities of our prison-industrial complex—the planet’s biggest and most costly, bar none—has launched a great new Web site where you can learn about and make use of theater, video, audio and other tools to involve your community. You can share stories, find out who else is active on the issues, download great tools to stage a reading or screen a video right in your own living room or help to organize your whole state.
I’ve been writing about this issue for a while. (On my home page, under “Blog Categories” on the right, click on “Incarceration Nation” to read more.) I’m by no means the only one: lately, more and more people have begun to sit up and take notice of this huge social challenge, from a Ted Koppel special to countless novels, memoirs and nonfiction books. What does it mean to have become a country that locks its problems up and throws away the key?
Last month, the Pew Center on the States released a report saying this: “For the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety.” (The full report may be downloaded from the Pew Web site.)
The chapter titles for the section on the costs of becoming Incarceration Nation tell a powerful story all by themselves:
- California: $8.8 Billion and Growing
- Health Care, Geriatrics Drive Costs
- Staff Vacancies, Overtime Spike
- Restitution, Child Support, Tax Payments Lag
- Crowding Out Other Priorities
- Pre-K, Higher Ed Funding Lags
We are living in a country whose leaders have chosen to squander our commonwealth on punishment in one form or another. A couple of Sundays ago, I was reading Parade Magazine, the Sunday supplement. I whiz through the pages every Sunday I’m home, right after the comics and before the TV section. This time, a chart on current federal spending caught my eye:
2008 Federal Spending
CONSUMER & OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY: $3.1 billion
FEDERAL PRISON SYSTEM: $6.2 billion
DISASTER RELIEF & INSURANCE: $12 billion
INT’L DEVELOPMENT & HUMANITARIAN AID: $14.3 billion
NAT’L INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: $28.6 billion
FOOD & NUTRITION ASSISTANCE: $60.2 billion
HOMELAND SECURITY: $64.9 billion
MEDICARE: $396 billion
MILITARY SPENDING: $583 billion
SOCIAL SECURITY: $615 billion
You have to go to the White House Web site (and set aside a few days with a magnifying glass) to get the full, detailed picture. But the headline is this: Out of the $1.78 trillion annual expenditures listed in Parade, 37 percent is allocated to policing and punishing in the U.S. and around the world. This doesn’t count a vast amount of taxpayers’ money spent at other levels, such as the $169 billion state and local governments spent on criminal justice in FY 2005 (the latest available numbers from the Bureau of Criminal Justice).
Just like our prison system, the United States’ military spending tops the world and then some. Our military budget exceeds the entire aggregate military spending of the rest of the world by 25 percent.
Are we so much wiser than the rest of the world, that we must intervene militarily in so many regions’ affairs? Are we so much more vulnerable that the cost of our defense requires more resources than the rest of the planet put together? Do we love the law so much that we must extend its reach into every corner of people’s lives, scooping them up in a punitive fever? Are we so bad, so much more criminal than the other peoples of the world, that our young men and women must be sequestered at five, ten, twenty times the rate of other nations’ in terribly overcrowded prisons where rehabilitation is often no longer even a pretense? Who are we?
We think of ourselves as kind and just people and probably, one by one, most of us are. But in our name, our elected officials have chosen to make this statement with our tax dollars: obedience to authority and punishment for those who disobey are our supreme values, at home and abroad. Judged by dollars and cents, we value them more than care for citizens in need, understanding between individuals and groups, the cultivation of beauty and wholeness, and certainly more than peace.
Everyone who studies social change reports that it takes perhaps 20 percent of a population (propelled by an even smaller a leading wedge) to create a social shift. Thousand Kites is one way to aid that shift, offering everyone an easy, accessible path to taking that first step. I don’t want to leave this punitive legacy for future generations. I don’t want to help, even inadvertently, to create the conditions whereby this country’s once-widespread association with freedom turns into a well-deserved reputation for squandering our commonwealth and our souls on punishment. Do you?
There are countless ways to turn this around: pick whatever draws you or uses your gifts. Any step, however small, helps.