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FDL Late Nite: American Crime and Punishment

The Libby trial dramatizes for me how the wealthy and powerful can maximize their chances to evade the consequences of their actions.  The trial is notable in large part because people like Libby almost never have to answer to the public for their criminal actions.  Even if they are indicted, the Libby types of the world can spend millions in their defense, while the poor and the pigmented can rot.  Whether Libby is eventually convicted or acquitted, this situation will remain.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world.  I need to do more learning and study of our penal culture, but I've begun to assemble some links here and here and here. Feel free to offer me more links for community review in the comments.

This is all connected to our growing concentration camp system for immigrants, which, as we've seen, tends to gather the undocumented and their citizen children all together (does anyone really trust the Department of Homeland Security to do anything right?).  The Washington Post had a front page article yesterday with some dramatic content, including this snippet about a brimming $65 million penal tent city in Texas: 

But civil liberties and immigration law groups allege that out of sight, the system is bursting at the seams. In the Texas facility, they say, illegal immigrants are confined 23 hours a day in windowless tents made of a Kevlar-like material, often with insufficient food, clothing, medical care and access to telephones. Many are transferred from the East Coast, 1,500 miles from relatives and lawyers, virtually cutting off access to counsel.

"I call it 'Ritmo' — like Gitmo, but it's in Raymondville," said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer from nearby Harlingen.

An inspector general's report last month on a sampling of five U.S. immigration detention facilities found inhumane and unsafe conditions, including inadequate health care, the presence of vermin, limited access to clean underwear and undercooked poultry. Although ICE standards require that immigrants have access to phones and pro bono law offices, investigators found phones missing, not working or connected to non-working numbers.

On a personal note, I have a pretty compelling (to me at least) story related to our prison culture I'd like to tell you, because I'm going to ask the community for some help at the end.

Three years ago, my parents, just days before they moved from my childhood home, received a letter addressed to me.  It was from a man whom I knew in 1989-1990 when he was 15 or 16 years old.  At that time, I had been a full time volunteer (with housing and a small stipend) for Covenant House in Texas, serving homeless, runaway and throwaway youth, trying to help them get out of a life on the streets.  

Unlike a lot of the kids I had dealt with there, this kid seemed to have a chance to make it.  He had an adoptive family that was willing to take him back, under certain conditions.  He was bright and eager to get his young life together, having been raised at first by a very mentally ill woman, his natural mother.  For whatever reason, he began to look up to me, and I gained approval from the organization to help him transition into his adoptive home and back to into high school, at the request of his adoptive parents and as part of an aftercare plan to keep him off the streets.

I left Texas in 1990 but had given him a contact address for me at my parents' home, and he wrote to me for a year or two more before falling out of contact.  Then, suddenly, I heard from him again three years ago:  he was in prison in Texas, desperate to reform his life, reaching out via mail on some faint hope of finding me.  Somehow, he remembered the address after all those years.  

For the last three years, he's been writing me lengthy letters in longhand, and I've been writing back.  I confronted him on his crime, what he had done, sorting it out, cutting through his initial tendency to want to defend himself or minimize his actions.  He was pretty able to take an inventory of his culpability, but I still had to scuff up his thinking a bit.  I also contacted authorities in Texas so I could study his criminal record.  His crime?  Hitting his child while trying to slap his common law wife during a domestic dispute (she may or may not have picked up the child as a sheild).  Ugly stuff. 

Oddly enough, I did a lot of work with batterers once upon a time and so I know the species quite well, the different types, the treatment options and ways to evaluate treatment programs (the subject of my doctoral research).  I know well the need to bluntly and unrelentingly confront any tendencies among such offenders to minimize, deny or blame others for their actions.  I know from some experience how to make informed guesses about a given offender's prognosis.

I did all this as best I could through letters, letters, letters.  He hung in there.  To him, I was some person from his past who once had stuck with him and had given him hope when the chips were down, and he wanted me to be a kind of mentor for him again. 

I admit, I had mixed feelings when I received that letter. There are not many times in your life when the universe knocks on your door like that, asking you to take a chance to help another person make some kind of positive change in their lives.  As much as I hated what he had done, how could I say no?  I decided I could not look myself in the mirror if I refused to help, as long as I felt he was being straight with me and was using his time on the inside to make his life right.  I stuck with him, right or wrong.  Others could justifiably have responded differently, but I'm happy with my choice.  He seems to have done very well, with plenty of necessary learning and introspection, these last three years.

On the inside, he's stayed out of trouble (I've verified this), and he has taken loads of classes, as many as he could.  He's gotten A's in his prison extension community college classes (he sends me his graded papers).  To me, he's an example of a person inside our prison system who has a chance at rehabilitation if the resources are afforded him, who can make a change with the right relationship support. 

Still, through his experiences, I've gained a window into how difficult we make it to get access to those resources, how much our prison systems are rigged for harsh punishment over any chance at rehabilitation.  This is especially true after release:  there are very few, meagerly funded transitional programs swamped by waiting lists serving ex-offenders.  No one gets elected by helping them and few people make donations (ex-offenders aren't very cuddly looking).  Fundamentalist churches do some good, but they force you to become a wingnut to earn the right to eat.  Will my ex-offender make it eventually?  I don't know, but as long as he's making the real effort and keeping himself clean, I'll help.

Here's where I need help from this community:  he's set for release this month and needs some assistance making his way back into community life on entirely new footing.  I'm not talking about money here, but rather, opportunity.

He does have a place to stay.  It's a little shaky, but it's the best he could get for now (though he's willing to support his child, he's no longer in a relationship with the child's mother,, which, from all I can tell, is a very good thing for everyone). The big thing right away is this:  he's going to need a job. 

Is there anyone in Houston willing to give an ex-con a chance?  He's got some computer tech skills, probably on a basic level of network engineering support.  He speaks well in a basic service position, and should certainly be able to do better than your average tech support desk person at a CompUSA or some such place.  But he needs someone to give him a chance. 

I'm asking people who might have some ideas about options or some provisional interest in helping his transition back to the community to email me at pachacutec at firedoglake dot com.  Please write "Second Chance" in the subject line of your email, even if you only want to ask me more questions to help you make whatever decisions you may want to make about all this.

No matter what happens with this ex-offender, our culture is broken when it comes to criminalizing all kinds of actions and meting out unduly harsh sentences falling disproportionally on the backs of the poor and on people of color. Once we classify someone in our minds as a "criminal," we virtually cease to think of that person as human at all anymore.  We make ex-felons, reformed or not, into social pariahs, no questions asked, while war criminals and profiteers make the rounds of the talking head shows and op-ed pages.  Our politicians score cheap points competing with each other to try to appear "tough on crime."  Even progressives blithely traffic in prison rape jokes, a testament to how well the right wing has desensitized us all to the humanity of others, most especially the poor or members of minority groups.

The public relations blitz of our imaginary "war on terror" (that virtually ignores Al Qaeda and bin Laden in favor or Saddam) is of a piece with this kind of thinking.  Once we labeled Saddam a "terrorist," based on lies, we justified aggression and occupation of a nation of people, resulting in countless and continuing deaths, all in the name of some rhetoric of international "law and order" (even as we behave lawlessly).  Having learned nothing, we're trying to do it again with Iran.  Every time we do it, with the help of Democrats who want to appear "tough," we destroy lives.  No wonder the rest of the world is subtly beginning to band together to bring us down a few pegs.  We're out of control. 

As a nation, our thinking needs to change, not only regarding many of our "terrorist enemies" abroad, but also about those whom we demonize at home, including "criminals" and "immigrants."  As progressives, it's our responsibility to begin to push this national conversation.  After all, what do we abet by our silence? 

If we remain silent, ask not who will be responsible for the next Abu Ghraib or Gitmo:  we will be.  If there is to be justice, or some greater approximation of it, in America, including accountability for the powerful, we need to change the way we think and talk about crime, criminals, responsibility and accountability.  We must remember that the labels we blithely apply, like "terrorist" or "felon," carry with them a cost in blood, death and the destruction of people's lives, of whole communities:  our communities.  The choice to begin that change, to propel that national conversation, belongs to us.

(The song in the clip above originally appeared on Steve Earle's terrific 1996 album of the same name, "I Feel Alright."

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Pachacutec did not, as is commonly believed, die in 1471. To escape the tragic sight of his successors screwing up the Inca Empire he’d built, he fled east into the Amazon rain forest, where he began chewing lots of funky roots to get higher than Hunter Thompson ever dared. Oddly, these roots gave him not only a killer buzz, but also prolonged his life beyond what any other mortal has known, excluding Novakula. Whatever his doubts of the utility of living long enough to see old friends pop up in museums as mummies, or witness the bizarrely compelling spectacle of Katherine Harris, he’s learned a thing or two along the way. For one thing, he’s learned the importance of not letting morons run a country, having watched the Inca Empire suffer many civil wars requiring the eventual ruler to gain support from the priests and the national military. He now works during fleeting sober moments to build a vibrant progressive movement sufficiently strong and sustainable to drive a pointed stake through the heart of American “conservatism” forever. He enjoys a gay marriage, classic jazz and roots for the New York Mets.