Thursday, March 1, 2012

The barbaric incarceration of America's youth

According to Human Rights Watch there are over three hundred youths in California prisons facing life without parole. "The United States is the only country in the world where people who were under age 18 at the time of their crime serve sentences of life without parole. Nationally, more than 2,500 youth offenders are serving these sentences,"  HRW says in a study released yesterday after six years of research.

Some countries refuse to have extradition agreements with the US due to the barbaric and racist justice system here.  We have over two million people in prison, more than any other country in the world so this treatment of youth should not surprise us.  And as HRW points out with regard to youth here, "In California, 45 percent of 127 cases surveyed, youth who had been sentenced to life without parole had not been the person to physically commit a murder..... They included a youth who stood by the garage door as a lookout during a car theft, a youth who sat in the getaway car during a burglary, and a youth who participated in a robbery in which murder was not part of the plan."

The report is titled  “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home: An Update,” and HRW points out that despite lots of evidence that shows young people have a much different make up than adults, especially when it comes to their ability to change, the state continues to sentence young people to die in prison for crimes they committed when in high school. In a previous study,  Human Rights Watch "found that an estimated 59 percent of youth serving life without the possibility of parole nationally were first-time offenders."

Many countries in the world consider the US penal system barbaric and cruel.  The prisons are referred to as "correctional" facilities which is a euphemism for what are in reality facilities for the warehousing of human beings, those overwhelmingly working class and poor people that the market has abandoned.  The so called "War on Drugs" led to a massive increase in the US prison population as petty offenders were thrown into jail, but it is the executions and life sentences for the mentally ill and the youth that so many around the world find particularly barbaric and, as we have raised on this blog many times, over half the prison population are people of color and lifetime juvenile detention follows this trend.  "California also has one of the worst racial disparity rates in the nation in the use of sentences of life without parole for juveniles.", Human Rights Watch adds, "African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at 18.3 times the rate of white youth, and Hispanic youth at 5 times the rate of whites."

During the 90's I used to visit a gang leader who was in prison, first in Susanville way up north and then down in Wasco.  He was framed by the LAPD after organizing the gang truces in LA.  At the time, the correctional officers (prison guards) were also under attack just like public sector workers are now.  When I would raise with them about the injustice of these attacks and the need to fight back they were in complete agreement.  But when I raised with them the injustice in the prison system they would often say, "They wouldn't be in here if they weren't guilty."

When people used to ask me if I supported the death penalty my response was usually, "It depends who does the judging and who does the killing." And even if people are found guilty, who is making that decision and based on what laws?   We have to look at why people do what they do as well as who makes the laws.  Their actions cannot be looked at independently from society and their place in it.  It is obvious that the public have to protected from some individuals in any society.  Our system doesn't protect us very much from slumlords though or from brutal and exploitative bosses; it didn't do those miners much good in the previous blog.  In any municipality, landlords have more influence in the politics and what goes on in the community than tenants for example. If workers are forced to go on strike which is always the case no matter what their media says, the police will be there to protect the interests of the boss, to help strikebreakers cross picket lines.

Domestic violence, petty crime, alcoholism and substance abuse are all connected to how society in general treats us.  Insecurity, losing one's home, job and livelihood increases the likelihood an individual may turn to crime.  The constant pressure to look and be a certain way and the dominant ideology that if you haven't "made it" it's your fault all adds to our alienation.  The vast majority of the people in the penal system would not be there were the society in which we live more human friendly, were there real opportunities available.  In fact, the US is in many ways the worst industrial country to be poor in or to suffer some misfortune as the social safety network is the weakest.  You can be a Vietnam or Iraq veteran it doesn't matter. You befall hard times, you're on your own for the most part.  This is particularly true when illness strikes a family.

All these stresses affect our behavior and we only have to go to Canada to notice the difference when it comes to the individual and society.  I'm not saying Canada is paradise either, but you have to travel abroad to see that here in the US workers get the least bang for our social buck, for our taxes.  Then our children grow up in this environment and it affects them too.

So we have to look at these problems as social problems not individual ones.  The prison system does not reform anyone, it creates criminal behavior, nourishes it.  It is a breeding ground for racial division which serves the interests of the authorities as it keeps the population divided. For women and men, rape and sexual abuse is a major issue in these institutions, often from the guards.  To become real "correctional" facilities as opposed to warehouses of human beings, these institutions have to train and educate those workers who find themselves in them because society has abandoned them.   There should be adjunct institutions connected to them, real "halfway houses" that can help the person make the transition to normal life. To do that, a guaranteed job at a $15 or $20 an hour minimum wage must be provided to help them become productive members of society. Everyone in society deserves a place to live.  Without this arrangement, many will simply find themselves in the milieu that provides them some protection from a hostile society and then back in jail.

We cannot say that the money is not there for this because it is.  Billions will be saved that is now spent in this industry as people are put to productive work, and, as we saw in an earlier blog, how much do those 44 military bases the US has built to surround Iran cost us?  How much does it cost US taxpayers to maintain almost 200 military bases around the world?  And we just gave trillions of dollars to the bankers to bail out their system. HRW claims that even if California stopped handing out juvenile life sentences today, the ones already handed would still cost the state half a billion dollars. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the cost of incarcerating two million nationally. Along with these changes, the workers in these institutions should be trained in social work, psychology and other fields that can help them help our brothers and sisters damaged by the market. They can become real "correctional" workers. 

We live in a savage society.  It is not civilization by any means.  Many prisons are unionized and those Unions should be fighting for these changes not narrowly competing with the private sector for who gets to guard more unemployed people and youth. Working people, for that is who fills the prisons, must build our own political party as an alternative to the two Wall Street parties that have a monopoly in the political arena and serve the interests of the people who make laws that are against our interests.

The politicians of the 1% have no interest in rehabilitating anyone, just sticking them in these warehouses.  They will not provide work because it is not profitable for the 1% to put people to work and for them, prisons are the safest place to put young people, those with the most revolutionary potential.  Better put them where you can keep an eye on them rather than have them in the streets where politics and the struggle to change the world around them inevitably arises.

Stopping the lifetime incarceration of juveniles is a just cause. But there have been some powerful prison uprisings over the last few years, major strikes like the one in Georgia. The struggle for jobs, housing, education, transportation, health care, all these issues must be sure to include and link up with the struggle to decriminalize and put an end to the entire US  prison industrial complex not just a particularly nasty aspect of it.

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