By Bridget Reilly
On some level, I have been aware for long time that this country was moving closer to becoming a police state. This process has actually been going on, slowly and subtlety, throughout the entire half-century of my life. But it was only recently that this reality crept close enough to my own life to make me take a closer look at it: certain facts about our, criminal justice, system kept presenting themselves to my awareness during wakeful hours of the night and invading my night dreams. Is it true that our prison population has skyrocketed from 200,000 to two million in a mere twenty years? How could this have been allowed to happen? As I pondered over the reason for this, I realized that a whole series of innovations have been introduced into the “correctional, in that space of time that have made it possible to widen the net and ensnare ever-larger number of people. These changes represent a gradual, insidious erosion of poor people’s rights and an encroachment on our private lives, all the while masquerading as improved methods of “fighting crime”. All the people who have not yet woken up to this truth are those who have not yet been snagged by the net and mislabeled “criminal” themselves. For a while I shrank from writing about these realizations, not wanting to give witness to the horror. But now it’s clear that I can no longer avoid it if I’m ever to have any peace. Here then, is my brainstorm list of those innovations. I’m not quite sure how many of them in no particular order:
1) The Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Guidelines Grid.
2) Measure 11, passed in 1994, which increased mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in Oregon, including those of first-time youth offenders.
3) The’ Three Strikes and You’re Out” rule.
4) Electronic hand printing of suspects, which replaced the messy ink fingerprinting system.
5) Urine analysis: a degrading and foolproof method of detecting alcohol and drug use in probation clients.
6) Change in state law: crime victims no longer need to press charges in order for the state to prosecute a case. The process also continues even if the victim
7) “The Box”-a frightening new device for restraining (immobilizing) prisoners in transit.
8) Spawning of private corporations that profit from prison labor.
9) New laws that broaden the definitions of crime in general, making it easier to “arrest and fine people for more and more petty “offense”.
10) Increase in probation fees from $10 to $35 a month.
11) Ballot measures calling for money to increase jail space or build new prisons, or “improve operations” of existing ones.
12) Closing of psychiatric hospitals, or increasing “security” in existing ones to make them more prison-like, or simply replacing hospital with prisons.
13) Discouraging mental defenders and jury trials for people whose crimes were the result of mental disorders, in favor of plea bargains for “reduced” sentences which are more expedient for the courts and more lucrative for the jails.
I’m not sure when each of each of these” improvements” had their inception, but I believe most or all of them were developed only within the last decade or two. And they are all part of a master design to increase the repression of ever-larger segments of the population. This in turn increases the profits and power of few are pulling the strings and watching the rest of dance. It’s an insidious cancer that continues to spread with every new invention those sick minds can dream up. Part of the strategy of this plan is to keep throwing dust in the eyes of the gullible public, all the fools who still buy into the myths about criminals, never having themselves been processed through that legal machinery to find out what really happens to suspected offenders.”
Another part is the normalization of the whole business through sheer repetition of these tactics on as many different poor suckers as possible-all gleaned from the same target group and many of them friends to each other. These are the manufactured “repeat offenders” who have been, and are being, and will again be processed through the courts, who can never seem to get off probation or stay off it for long. These people are forever comparing notes with their friends who are also on probation. “Seen your P.O. Lately? Has he pulled a U.A. on you yet? And the rationalizations that they have to make while attempting to forgive the situation. Oh, well-thirty-five bucks a month ain’t that bad ; it’s only for three years, and he leaves me alone most of the time; the fines are affordable and I have three years to pay them off; it could have been a lot worse-they could’ve sent me upstate for a year, but I got a break instead. Only 20 days in the county jail-hell, I could do that stand in on my head. I’ve done more time than that before…etc, etc, etc.”
Penitentiary talk is getting more and more incorporated into the everyday language of people in our baby boomer circles. Most of my friends are convicted felons” states my husband matter-of-fact. This has been so normalized in out generation that we’ve almost forgotten there was a time when it was otherwise. But certainly in our parents’ generation it wasn’t the norm. How many older white middle class people could say, Most of my friends are convicted felons? I have a fairly early childhood memory of my father speaking of his “criminal friend,” a guy he’d once known who was now in prison for murdering his wife. He spoke of this fellow as a rare novelty, one token friend who belonged to that glamorized “other “ class of people known as “criminals, people we mostly thought of as fictional characters in TV shows. But that was back in the innocent 1950’s. The following decade was when it all changed, when white middle-class hippies, baby-boomers in their teens and early twenties, were getting busted” right and left for possession of marijuana and other drugs, and for participation in anti-war protests. This was when these white baby-boomers started identifying themselves as a sort of underclass, a new category of people who were subject to systematic police harassment and legal persecution, which was rightly perceived as an attack on a new counterculture.
That was when we crossed the line and saw that people labeled ‘criminals” were not “other” people, and they certainly were not mere fictional characters. They were us! Then we began to feel the looming shadow of Big Brother, which we have continued to feel right up to the present day in one form or another. This set the stage for many of the abuses that are currently being practiced in our “criminal justice” system, and are continuing to be felt not only by us baby-boomers, but also by the succeeding generation (to whom it seems even more “normal”). And somewhere along the way, the bright idea entered someone’s mind that big bucks could be made from exploiting prison labor. And that the appetite for these big bucks could be fed through the propagation of false myths about “criminals” who were blindly swallowed by the average Joe Citizen. It was this type of mindset that spawned the innovative measures I’ve listed. So, here is the bone-chilling truth that must be recognized if we are to have any hope of checking the spread of this cancer: law enforcement is big business. And like all big business it thrives on propaganda to gain public acceptance of its methods. This is how the machinery can keep on rolling and the bucks keep coming in that are making some people extremely rich.
Once the public has been duped into believing that a certain individual is a threat to the public safely, and that the state is selflessly concerned with protecting it, they will stand idly by while this person is conscripted into the legalized slavery of prison labor, and not lift a finger to stop the court from doing its dirty deed. That is, until it happens to one of their own children-then the truth begins to dawn. But by that time it’s too late their loved one has already disappeared behind the prison walls, a helpless political pawn in the hands of a system that doesn’t care. And under the Bush administration, this pathetic state of affairs can only promise to continue getting worse. The irony of it, as we should be well aware, is that George W. Bush is himself a baby-boomer with a criminal record, a suspected cocaine user of times past and a convicted drunk driver. If he were caught doing those things today he would also be in prison. Yet somehow this conniving snake managed to get himself elected President, and is part of the propaganda machine that continues to spread lies and myths about “criminals” to the gullible public. Just how much farther will we allow this insanity to go? How many more vulnerable people will be sacrificed to that voracious prison machine before the public wakes up to the truth?
Copyright Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH published in Cleveland Ohio in July of 2001.