A couple of weeks ago, Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported from the front lines of the U.S. prison-industrial complex:
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.
Two hundred years ago, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov told the parable of the tainted grain to illustrate the need in a crazy world to remember our own sane selves.
A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend: “I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year’s grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?”
The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.
“But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone,” the king objected. “And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they will look at us and think that we are the mad ones.
“No. We too will have to eat from this year’s grain. But we will both put a sign on our heads. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine. And when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad.”
When I read how we are becoming a nation of punishers, how we are embracing that identity with wholehearted zeal, I feel like the king in this parable. The grain we are all being asked to consume is the distorted view of human possibility and national priority spewing from our capitols and blanketing the nation through lowest common-denominator scare media like Fox News. There is an old adage: Never ask a barber if you need a haircut. Scare media reporters seldom talk to anyone but barbers. Time and time again, their questions are directed to people who have a major economic and ego stake in the criminal justice system. In reply, those people inevitably pause long enough from counting their money or savoring the evidence of their power to call for the same thing: more prisons, as fast as we can build them.
The mark on our foreheads—the reminder that we are better than this—appears in the words of those who have studied the situation and who have no stake in expanding Incarceration Nation. They confirm that we are covered in shame in the eyes of the world. Look at these quotes from experts in Liptak’s piece:
“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”
Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”
Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States “a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.”
Today, the Community Arts Network has published a long essay I wrote about the Thousand Kites project, in which artists and other community members engage with the deep and urgent questions this situation raises. (Go to my website, scroll down to “Blog Categories” and click on “Incarceration Nation” to read more.) “The Path of Stories” is conceived as the first of three pieces; I am spending much of this year writing the second. If it helps you remember who we are, I hope you will forward the link to others who might find it useful too.