MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
It's not unusual to see headlines in major cities, such as the one in Chicago after the Fourth of July weekend, on the NBC News Windy City website: "More Than 60 Shot Over Fourth of July Weekend."
Politicians, fearing the NRA and having abandoned large areas of urban areas populated by minorities as economic wastelands, often promote putting more people with illegal guns in jail as a solution to what amounts to free-fire zones in poor police-occupied areas of cities. In essence, these are the areas that political leaders (and much of society) have largely discounted as de facto urban reservations for disposable people.
Prison provides a living for a lot of people - for-profit prison corporations, guards, lawyers, judges, the arresting police officers and a whole slew of professional consultants and workers. One thing that it doesn't do is provide economic options for those incarcerated for gun possession charges (or for a myriad of other non-violent technical crimes including drugs) when they are released.
The cost to the taxpayer of keeping an individual in prison is high. The New York Times (NYT) wrote about a 2012 study that found that the average cost for incarceration in the state prisons was $31,286 in the 40 states studied - and federal prisons are even more costly. The NYT reported that New York City spent a whopping $167,731 per prisoner in city jail, the majority probably in jail for nonviolent charges:
The city paid a whopping $167,731 to feed, house and guard each inmate last year, according to a study the Independent Budget Office released this week.
“It is troubling in both human terms and financial terms,” Doug Turetsky, the chief of staff for the budget office, said on Friday. With 12,287 inmates shuffling through city jails last year, he said, “it is a significant cost to the city.”
Of course, those who are convicted of felonies for nonviolent offenses are released into a revolving door of being unable to find work upon release - in part due to their felony records - and returning to communities that the cities, as noted earlier, have written off as dystopian wastelands of blight, economic deprivation and violence that can only be monitored through 24-hour police surveillance and arrests.
The NRA and the gun industry have long factored in the illegal gun market as a lucrative opportunity for firearms sales, whatever their denials.
However, the problem goes far beyond the NRA, extending an infested and ingrained system that marks poor minority males for prison as much as wealthy suburban children are marked for college and the wealth track.
In a July 12 opinion piece in The Chicago Sun-Times, John Maki, who is executive director of the prison reform group the John Howard Association, lamented this socially accepted reality of ruining lives and gave recommendations for a proposed state investigative committee on the jail system:
To understand the true causes of Chicago’s crisis, the committee should engage people who live and work in the communities that are most affected by gun violence. They should talk to someone like Father David Kelly. For more than 30 years, he’s worked with young people in the deep end of Cook County’s justice system. And since 2000, he’s run Precious Blood Ministries, a kind of safe haven for youth in Chicago’s Back of the Yards, one of the city’s most violent and impoverished neighborhoods.
A few weeks ago, I asked him what he thought was behind Chicago’s gun violence. He told me the availability of guns is part of the problem, but the causes of violence are deeper:
“We have too many youth who are operating out of a sense of not having any worth — that is pretty much what they have heard — and too many have bought into it. They have all experienced serious violence, and so are dealing with significant trauma and the effects that come with it.
And so what you have are young people who are carrying a deep sense of shame, who are traumatized, who have nothing to do, and nowhere to go.
Then throw in the easy access to guns — that is a dangerous combination.”
This is the real crisis that is afflicting Chicago’s most violent communities.
Maki recommends that the committee members "should reject proposals that would merely send people to prison for longer periods of time, exacerbating an already vicious cycle. Instead, they should find ways to reduce our costly reliance on incarceration and invest in communities like Back of the Yards and the lives of the people who live there."
Why not just spend most of Illinois's approximately $1.3 billion prison budget on employing previously incarcerated people? How about that for a revolutionary break in the current bankrupt youth-to-prison pipeline for economically abandoned minority youth?
Maki also points out the inevitable failure of longer and mandatory prison sentences: "The threat of longer prison penalties is not an effective deterrent - it will only increase the time people serve in our already overcrowded $1.3 billion prison system, spending money we don’t have on a response to crime that doesn’t work."
Of course, then, we as a society would have to recognize that people are not disposable, and that they are not pawns for others to earn livings off of while they are condemned to lives of punishment and despair.
It's long past time, as Truthout Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar recently pointed out in The New York Times, to put a halt to this revolving door of injustice.
These young men need futures, not a system that frames them.
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