Today I read Adam Gopnik‘s latest New Yorker article (Jan 30, 2012, p 72) “The Caging of America.” The article is accompanied by a photograph on the first page depicting the heart breaking black and white image of a solitary child sitting helplessly, despondently, with a sullen, crumpled posture of folded arms and bowed head on the edge of a comfortless, iron-framed bed situated in a sterile, cheerless, and barren cell. I would hope that the reflexive response of anyone viewing such an image would be to want to reach out to offer comfort. Unable, of course, to intervene in the child’s fate, I stared into the picture and was unable to relocate my attention away from a sheer, limbic horror which I might describe as having the emotional wind knocked out of me. Here I spend enough time cavilling about the innumerable deprivations and humiliations to which the adult American prisoner is routinely subjected while sometimes, mea culpa, losing sight of the reality that there is no shortage of child prisoners in our country. As a prisoner, I know first hand how brutal and destructive prison is even to those who presumably have the psychological maturity to better cope with it. I can only imagine the intense sense of despair, terror, and betrayal a child must feel left alone in such a foreboding environment for even ten minutes.
As you gaze at the image it is starkly and immediately evident that this tragic lamb has been swallowed whole by an insensate, merciless, cunning and rapacious beast, and there he sits in its belly ready to be digested.
It is images like these, sooth, which will hopefully arouse our fiercest protective instincts. Could anyone even a notch less reptilian than John Wayne Gacy not be stirred to action? Hell, even alligators protect their young.
Not that I have many illusions left to be disabused – prison imparts at least a mild cynicism – but even I can’t stop declaiming, “This is America? Really?” Why the fuck aren’t we massed outside the gates of child penal facilities holding flaming effigies of the governor?
I ask my readership what kind of people are we becoming to allow this?
And how much irreparable damage has this lust to imprison and torture done to our international reputation? The documented atrocities at Abu Graib annihilated any pretense that our most recent military excursions had a humanitarian component or even that we might have been capable of formulating, let alone acting from such a motive in the first place. And let us not forget “Gitmo,” our prized prison complex in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where despite a “liberal” in the White House, the Geneva Convention is on permanent holiday along with an entire raft of human rights secured over centuries through the frequently enough mortal struggles of millions.
And now, it is to The United States that the ignominious distinction of World’s number one child imprisoner goes. Let us not forget, however, that as long as we keep the machinery of this hideous practice in motion, we will continue to divest ourselves of the moral authority needed to fling our “j’accuse” at the other brutal, totalitarian regimes with any force.
If, with confused minds we are unable to find the language or the will to end this barbarity on purely humanitarian grounds, given that we are finding ourselves located in steerage of a rather outmoded leaky boat long side such rogues as North Korea, Sudan, and Syria – a few of the less-than-progressive countries which share our zest for inhuman practices – perhaps we can derive our motivation to change from sheer embarrassment?
Who among us would speak up to defend the practice of child imprisonment?
“One might rightly infer that the general topic of prison is one that I am passionate about, and it is all I can do to get beyond such an arresting photograph even through Gopnik’s brilliant piece has in it much else worthy of comment. Primarily, I am encouraged that a writer of his stature and influence found the correct language to describe this human rights’ crisis – speaking not just of children (he mentions the fact that there are 400 in Texas alone who were sentenced to life as teenagers), but the entire national program of incarceration, “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today – perhaps the fundamental fact – as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.”
Being the adroit thinker that he is, he anticipates the arguments of the systems would-be defenders:
“Yet a spectre hunts all these accounts, North and South, whether process gone mad or penal colony writ large. It is that the epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. The real backdoor to the prison boom, which shows up only sporadically in the prison literature, is the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.”
And then annihilates them:
“One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that lead to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. ‘New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, then it was at the height of the crime wave, ‘ Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall? It had nothing to do with putting more men in prison.”
The connection between a falling crime rate and a concomitant sky-rocketing rate of incarceration is one that I, too, worried about because it would serve as the only legitimate justification for maintaining the status quo. So, I am quite relieved that Zimring’s analysis points us in another direction: ”Over the last twenty or so years crime in all major categories fell in New York over eighty percent despite a declining rate of incarceration!”
But Gopnik takes pains, as usual, to develop his argument, and I am doing but little justice to it here. In addition to covering in some detail, the arguments located in Franklin E Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” he also draws from William J Stuntz’s new book, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” and Robert Perkinson’s book, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.”
I highly encourage inquiring minds to read the article and the books from which Gopnik constructs his survey.