How much do inmates need to feel pushed before they push back?

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Dec 14, 2010 How much do inmates need to feel pushed before they push back?

Too many people are unjustly caged in United States prisons. (Image from Bureau of Prisons’ website).

Why is there a prison here? Five hundred years ago there was none”Jun Yasuda.

Georgetown University Law School’s Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy law clinic asserts that:

We live in a time of mass incarceration. The United States currently incarcerates a greater percentage of its citizens than anywhere else on earth–a total of 2.3 million people.  The US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  When you include probation and parole, there are 7.3 million people under the control of our criminal justice system, or 1 in every 31 adults.  Unfortunately, those who initially manage to avoid incarceration through probation often wind up serving time.  Those who get out on parole often return to prison.  Moreover, our incarceration practices have a disproportionate impact on certain populations.  According to recent figures, one in two young African American men is either in jail or prison or on probation or parole in the District of Columbia.

Is it folly to expect that prisons are going to be docile places? Although inmates have caused me no problems during my scores of visits to jails and prisons, that does not automatically mean that discontent is not ready to boil over.

When the government authorities cage people, without some safety valves, discontent will arise. What type of safety valves might prisons and jails consider? They include:

– Treat inmates compassionately and as humans at every turn, not as numbers, not as non-human animals, and not as somehow lesser humans, but as full humans.

– Encourage and foster volunteers coming to the prisons and jails for teaching, skills classes and workshops, meditation and yoga, self-improvement, and religious gatherings, so long as the inmates are free to decline participation with such opportunities.

– Provide inmates with additional opportunities for rehabilitation, so that they know that upon their release that they will have a chance to earn a living and pursue a life with  reduced risks of recidivism.

Discontent arose recently among Georgia prison inmates to the point that many inmates in numerous prisons went on strike by refusing to leave their cells. The strike apparently was partly organized through inmates’ use of cellphones, which is a use prohibited in prisons and jail. Unless and until the striking inmates obtain effective leadership for negotiations and settle on a short list of demands, their strike may end up fading into oblivion. However, the very ability of these inmates to organize in an environment that heavily challenges any mass organization is all the more worth paying attention to.

I urge a peaceful and compassionate resolution to the current Georgia prisoner strike. I also urge that this Georgia prison situation be a learning opportunity to advance us towards a smaller inmate population (in part through eliminating laws mandating no bail for certain alleged offenses; legalizing marijuana, heavily decriminalizing all other drugs, and eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing); to improve inmates’ living conditions and opportunities, and to create a place where inmates and jailers treat each other more compassionately and justly; and to create a more effective transition for inmates who finish their incarceration periods.

Many people perhaps go about their daily life barely thinking about inmates. However, there are too many inmates for them to be ignored.

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