By Rina Palta/The Informant-KALW
I am an advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners because I am imprisoned and experience firsthand the contemptuous bigotry permeating the prison culture. I am a prisoners’ education and rehabilitation advocate because i know the value and ameliorating effect these programs hold for those in prison and on society as a while. But the edification of prisoners does not happen in a vaccuum.
Most people can see the connection between the defunding of social services and the public school system and the rise in incarceration rates. Less apparent is the role of special interests in shaping public policy. Here’s a little background information on how we arrived at our current state of affairs.
From the 1950′s to the 1970′s, a broad-based prisoner rights movement grew and held sway in this country and around the world. After its decline in the 1970′s, things began to change.
“In addition to public officials and candidates championing the politics of law and order,” says Marie Gottschalk, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “Numerous new groups began to mobilize around criminal justice issues and alter the political context.”
Special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, Corrections Corporation of America, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association joined forces with victims’ rights organizations to change public perceptions of criminals as victims of society to that of victimizers of society. In the changing, prisoners were all painted with the same brush. The politics of penology were simplified: if victims are good, then criminals (and prisoners) must be evil. Every issue of crime and punishment became colored in these black and white terms–a zero sum equation that prisoners would lose every time. To argue against harsh penalties for offenders was to side with the forces of evil. Laws such as three strikes and you’re out, and truth in sentencing, which mandated much longer sentences, passed unanimously. Bills to construct more prisons were approved without detailed thought given to the financial and societal impacts that would accrue.
Now we are paying for this zeal for retribution. Out of control prison costs, the highest recidivism rate in the country, high taxes, fewer social services, and a record deficit–all due to the hundreds of prison-related laws we were so (and still are) quick to pass.