The Prisons of Our Own Making

This week Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges warns that America’s democracy is gasping its last at the same time that others like Uri Friedman lament a twilight settling over the Arab Spring and freedom in the world at large.

Is it the end of an era of expanding liberty? Did 9/11 kill our hopes for a free world in the 21st century? Will the power mongers of tomorrow use intrusive technology to squelch freedom?

To answer these questions well, we would need to have a shared concept of what freedom requires–what are the essential liberties? Hedges’ concern is the government’s power to snoop without limits, to be via computer surveillance as efficient as the East German Stasi was during the Cold War in its suppression, not of terrorism, but of any voice that challenges the status quo.

Despite this tangible fear, Freedom House, which Friedman cites in warning of a decline in freedom worldwide, gives the United States a perfect 1.0 on its 1-7 scale. There is a disconnect in these two metrics. Hedges is alarmed by the erosion of privacy, assuming that it is a necessary component of political freedom. Freedom House, though, rates the country based on its citizenry’s political rights and civil liberties (excluding privacy, apparently).

It seems that one side is assuming the worst possible implications of societal change, while the other is clinging to the best possible interpretation of the laws themselves.

There is one microcosm which we can examine that, quite strangely, can draw in both arguments. How, after all, can a country truly be considered “free” when so many of its citizens patently aren’t free at all? Freedom Watch’s summary of rights in the U.S.–which often seems strangely disconnected from those perfect scores given to the nation–notes that over two million Americans are incarcerated in the United States, the largest body of prisoners in the world. That’s a figure more than half a million higher than China, a nation we criticize for its poor human rights record but which nevertheless fails to match our incarcerated population despite having six times our population. What’s worse is that this prison population is disproportionately comprised of minorities.

In short, the American “justice” system is the greatest proof of our society’s injustice.

Freedom House acknowledges these facts about our system, while failing to recognize that these also constitute a gross negation of civil and political rights. When convicts are denied their right to vote–to cast a ballot against the laws and the legal system that has doled out so much injustice to blacks and hispanics, for example–then they are excluded from their full role in society. Thousands, if not millions, are victims of a racially biased system and yet are blocked from expressing their democratic rights at the most basic level to change that system.

These numbers are staggering and any honest reckoning with them requires that we not only restore the convicted’s right to the ballot, but that we shutter the prison system for all non-violent offenders. Our “justice” system as it stands is a mockery of justice, without any pretense of “reforming” criminals. It is a callous system of punishment–often run now by for-profit companies that exploit human misery while countenancing the horrific injustices within the prisons themselves where gangs and drugs perpetuate a culture of violence and rape, becoming in essence “monster factories.”

Ironically, the very technology that underlies much of Hedges’ fears for our democracy provides a ready way to repair this blight on our social landscape. Given modern technology, we could engage addicts and other petty criminals through counseling and empathy therapy while still protecting society from recidivism through electronic monitoring. A more comprehensive and integrated system of GPS and ankle bracelets could allow surveillance to replace prison sentences for many, freeing up valuable prison resources to deal with the actual violent offenders, perhaps even reforming some of these instead of just warehousing them through their terms. Yes, Hedges’ concerns are extremely important, and they demand that these systems of surveillance be transparent and open to public scrutiny, whether it’s the NSA doing the snooping or a probation officer with an access code. But to cure what ails us, we may need to look at the deepest, most important elements of liberty. Once we recognize that there is already deep rot there, we must press for reforms in the way our legal system deals with the accused and the guilty.

Without such reforms, we are all locked away in a prison of our own making–trapped by a harsh sense of false rectitude that only cloaks a callow and cruel racism within the system.

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