A broken system has filled our prisons with poor people


I broke my arm last week, and it’s a little hard to type.

So instead of my usual column, I hope you don’t mind me sharing something from my book “Redemption Songs”. This passage deals with prison issues, but also with some broader themes:

Just as focusing on individual lines on a canvas doesn’t reveal the big picture, and it’s only when you step back and take the picture as a whole that your perspective changes, a complex constellation of factors weaves together. through these criminal justice stories. , factors that are important to understand. The growth and utility of prisons is not far removed from what happens in any city or the country in general.

I live in a neighborhood with several low income apartment complexes. There is a bit of hunger and homelessness (a homeless person would retreat at night to an apartment building closet on cold winter nights, unbeknownst to anyone, until anyone ‘he lights a fire with a smoldering cigarette).

The housing crisis that reached its peak after the 2008 mortgage scandal continues. There seem to be more ambulance calls in this neighborhood, as well as more police visits, at least anecdotally. This suggests that poverty is unhealthy and that unemployment can lead people to make bad choices.

In my state, it’s not always easy to find a good paying job. Wages in many counties in Iowa are stagnating.

The schools are pretty good here, although the issue of parity between schools in the richer and poorer parts of our community is looming over us. But Iowa continues to cut funding for public education and, especially in rural counties, schools are struggling.

In other parts of the country things are worse. Down the street in St. Louis, a friend who taught in the school system confirms that many predominantly African-American schools inside the city’s major ring road or across Mississippi to East St. Louis are in. sinking.

Some of these problems are due to the great disparity that our society has cultivated through income inequality. And a lot of it, I believe, comes down to the shameful logic of capitalism.

Take the issue of CEO compensation. In the United States, the average salary ratio of CEOs and workers is 360: 1. In Canada, it is 20: 1, and in Germany, 12: 1.

The move to deregulation over the past few decades has seen half of American businesses send jobs overseas, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States. Outsourcing also results in lower wages and benefits.

We have allowed a system to flourish by deriving maximum benefit from workers, consumers and the environment, often at the expense of cooperation, community strengthening and our own health. For example, despite their leading role in the Great Recession of 2008, Wall Street financial institutions – whose raison d’être, let’s face it, is simply to make money with money – are expanding, unregulated, more than ever. Meanwhile, those in the highest political office are shaping the selfish behavior that sets the tone for this expansion.

What does all this mean? Mark Lewis Taylor suggests that these wealth and class issues create a “social wreck” that “must be managed, cleaned up or removed.” This constitutes the surplus of populations that our economic system must manage and that the United States controls today more and more by systems of punishment and confinement. Our prisons are full of poor people.

Sometimes we need to see the big picture. While individuals must take responsibility for what they do, there are social factors that shape people’s lives, communities and decisions. And it may only be when we embrace a transformative and restorative view of society as a whole that we will be able to achieve true justice in our justice system.

Andy Douglas is the author of “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir” and “The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga”.


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