Amnesty International poster: Write a letter, save a life.
For those who missed Stephen Lemons' review of Shaun Attwood's new book, "Hard Time: A Brit in America's Toughest Jail", it's worth the read. I'd post it here but I've already packed in too much for the night. It is, of course, about the Maricopa County Hell they call a jail. Hit Shaun's blog, "Jon's Jail Journal" too, if you haven't already. He posts letters from prisoners there, and is a good friend to many who would otherwise have no audible voice.
As for the conditions of confinement in our jails and prisons: I don't understand why the Department of Justice hasn't held Arpaio criminally responsible for his abuse of so many people over the years - from medical negligence to conspiracies to deprive us of our civil rights. Their failure to do so thus far is akin to the feds' consent for every harm he's done under his tenure, and complicity with every additional prisoner he neglects or kills. I'm really starting to worry that they plan to make some kind of closed door deal with him, then pack their bags and walk away.
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act covers prisoners precisely because the People so often end up needing protection from the sadistic cruelty of those wielding power in our name, and few in America are more disenfranchised and vulnerable than those disposed of in jails and prisons - citizens and "aliens" alike. They include our elderly, our poor, our sick, troubled youth, our mentally ill, our developmentally disabled - all those people we once institutionalized elsewhere (and have thrown out into the streets) are thrown into the stew.
Of course, the more vocal idiots in our community argue after every article about prisoner abuse or suicide that because they are in a jail or prison they deserve whatever they get, whatever that may be. Just because those readers like to stone prostitutes, though, doesn't mean they are themselves without sin. Nor do they represent all of us. Those people are twisted bullies hiding behind fake identities looking for someone to kick who's already down. They've probably commented on this blog of Stephen's, in fact.
That's a tangent I can't stop from exploring in this context. The media shouldn't give such people the platform on which to celebrate brutalization, suicide, and murder, including among prisoners, in the first place. That's not supporting freedom of speech - it's just intimidating the voices of reason and humanity into silence. Giving hateful people our shared public space empowers them to use shame to perpetrate cruelty, and it perpetuates the stigma felt by prisoners' families who read "good riddance" from the community after their loved ones die. They screen such things out of printed "letters to the editor"; why not moderate their public forums? Only abusive and rich people seem to get amplified when they speak - the rest of us get censored, even if we head the nightly news.
Frankly, most of "free" Arizona should be locked up, looking at the multitude of laws that require jail or prison for those who break them - and at how unbelievably easy it is to put someone away, especially in this state. We are just privileged or very lucky if we've escaped such a fate so far. Those who think they will never be prosecuted because they really aren't "criminals" need to check out the Arizona Justice Project. There are all sorts of innocent people behind bars.
Once in a while the law reaches out and touches us where we never thought it would - and since it's not a common occurrence in our white, middle class communities, we are sure that there is just a deviant in our midst, or it is a fluke of the justice system that will work itself out. Dad's in an accident while on painkillers following surgery and goes to prison because he had an old DUI. Presumably he will get treatment in prison, but he's already been sober for 5 years - instead he just loses time from his kids' lives and his ability to support his family. The neighbor is arrested for embezzling to save the house from foreclosure and her kids from homelessness - losing everything and everyone in the process. We pay over $20,000 a year to incarcerate her for five years - and God knows how much to put the kids in foster care - while her banker gets a bonus from the taxpayer bailout.
I hope everyone out there finds those images as disturbing as I do. It happens all the time.
As for the wrongfully-accused: Americans don't really presume innocence, which is why Joe's jail was allowed to get so bad. We recoil from the accused as soon as they hit the news because the possibility that agents of the almighty law might be corrupt or wrong threatens our sense of social order. We sacrifice Innocence like she's the designated virgin just to maintain the illusion that the guilty among us are eventually caught, and that those who are caught are always guilty.
People who are innocent tend to believe that the truth will prevail, and if it doesn't they end up being punished worse than the real criminals who make a deal. Real-life case in point: Courtney Bisbee, the school nurse accused of touching a 14-year old liar and branded as a child molester, was a feather in the cap of the detective who arrested her and the prosecutor who got the conviction. To assure that the rest of us got our taste of blood, the judge slammed her with 11 years for fighting it out in court instead of taking a plea bargain that would have had her back home with her child by now.
Stephen Lemons even investigated Courtney's case and advocated on her behalf (here and here, too), but no one wants to hear the new evidence that would exonerate her because it implicates incompetence - or worse. For law enforcement's ego and our sense of order, she's been in prison for at least 6 years now. Maybe Romley is the man who will have the courage to help set her free - we'll see. He was the Maricopa County Attorney when she was originally prosecuted, so if he steps up to the plate and looks at it in a new light, I'll be impressed. Andrew Thomas was too much of a political coward.
In these ways the brutality of our courts, Joe's jail, and Ryan's prisons hits home. It's not a freakish thing for families to be ripped apart by "justice" in poor and minority communities - it's all too common. The legal system works exactly as it's designed to there, oppressing resistance to white supremacy and defiance of the rules of capitalism at every turn. Justice is the sheep's clothing that America dons to promote the interests of the few, and the myth that we are a model of democracy is what blinds us - and Her - to the deceit.
But Justice is not supposed to prey on the rest of us "ordinary Americans"- it is supposed to protect us. It only seems to be when we fall from grace ourselves (or get falsely accused and imprisoned) that we begin to see the system for what it is. We get inside and see people doomed to spend the rest of their lives in prison for charges as petty as fraud, while murderers walk away with money in their pocket after 15 or 20 years. Looking around, we also realize that the majority of the people behind bars are not a public safety threat - most are public nuisances, eyesores, "sinners" and surplus laborers who legislators thought would be better hidden away. Those still claiming their innocence are all too often out-maneuvered by the state in legal proceedings, and seldom have the luxury of an attorney to help them once appeals are exhausted.
Look closely and you'll see that America's prisons and jails have, by and large, replaced our mental hospitals, poorhouses, and plantations. And they are major money-making machines for those in power, as long as they skimp on human rights and basic needs like food and health care. That's why the prisoners who would expose them are discredited, discounted, and silenced in every way possible.
Never mind that the desperate and vulnerable are being relegated and abandoned in these hellholes to sociopaths who will rape and torture them for the fun of it, or even kill them just to score a new gang tattoo. To the private and public prison industries alike, each new body is just an addition to their growing empire - they have no interest in anyone's innocence or special circumstances, and no reason to help prevent or reduce the effects of crime in our communities.
Despite lamenting about the high recidivism rate (usually as an excuse to be better funded and more brutal), jails and prisons are just as well-paid for recycling the people they chewed up once already. Buying the industry's line of BS, a terrorized public decides that parole officers and prosecutors are always professional and responsible and work in a functional system, so it must be the criminal's own fault for getting put back in - he should have learned his lesson the first time. Our perceptions are too often shaped by the expectation that what we pay nearly 10% of our state budget for includes some effort at "rehabilitation" (hence the AZ Department of Corrections' designation as such, not the "Department of Confinement"). The criminal justice system isn't rehabilitating anyone - they're spending our money lobbying the governor and legislature to pass more laws and assure more prison sentences for less serious crimes than ever.
The prison industrial complex as a whole (of which Sheriff Joe is actually just a small part) cultivates the rest of us to feel exploited and victimized, though, so that we seem defenseless and helpless without them. Then they glorify themselves as our protectors (though they usually arrive after the crime, not in time to prevent it), and we willingly pay them some other kid's lunch money to keep it up. It's a racket. Actually reducing crime and making us all more safe would just cut into their power and profit margins.
Anyone who believes such a system really upholds justice or promotes the public good is delusional or has been duped. Law enforcement is an integral part of the fascist decimation of our rights, not the power protecting them. We - the People - are the only power that will protect liberty and justice for the future, but only if we have our eyes wide open and are ready to risk jail, prison, defamation, and even execution in the process. If we are not, then we have surrendered that which is most important in life for nothing more than illusion. We are on a leash, instead of in a cage. At least some prisoners, with their integrity intact, mange to remain free.
The DOJ is grossly negligent for failing to act aggressively under CRIPA against the MCSO, and therefore shares the blame for emboldening our greedy, bigoted, fear-mongering lawmakers and enforcers to continue to imprison, injure, and kill those of us whose nationality or skin color or gender or politics or religion they hate. But we are also responsible for letting this go on so long without holding either the feds or Arpaio accountable ourselves. So, here are the names and contact info for the people at the DOJ who should be investigating the real public enemies - and taking action - under CRIPA, regardless of what else they're doing. Please call or write on behalf of those fighting a losing battle to defend their lives. Don't wait for your loved one to end up in trouble: he or she may be the next prisoner of the MCSO or Arizona Department of Corrections to die.
So could you or I.
DOJ - Special Litigation Section
Special Litigation Section950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, PHB
Washington, D.C. 20530
For FEDEX: 601 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004
toll-free at (877) 218-5228
Principal Deputy Chief
Julie Abbate (Acting)
Mary Bohan (Acting)
Luis Saucedo (Acting)