Monday, February 6, 2012

America's Great Cage and the Cause of Freedom

There is a dichotomy in America that pits our much-ballyhooed "love of freedom" against our hatred of it. In the past, it was people of color - African-American slaves, Native Americans forced onto reservations, this split personality. Today, it is the families of America's prisoners.

For 250 years, this American nation imprisoned an entire race of people - called them "slaves", and determined that they had no rights. They proceeded to build a southern economy - the plantation system - upon the backs of these hapless men, women, and children. These southerners spoke of "God" and "honor" while they inflicted endless abuses upon their captives. They fortified this system of slavery with laws and institutions so that it would last.

When President Lincoln said that he would emancipate the slaves, his pronouncement had a visceral effect on the South. One southerner called Lincoln's plan "despicable." It would take the deaths of 600,000 men to convince the South to let its captives go.

Today, Americans talk of being a "forgiving people"; a people who believes in "second chances." These Americans are no more sincere than the men of the antebellum South who spoke of "honor" even as they castrated black men, raped black women, and sold black children.

Slavery was one big prison cell that stretched from Maryland to Texas. After it was dismantled, America revisited its zeal for imprisoning people with the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Entire families and communities had their lives ripped away for no other reason than America had the power to do so. There was no guilt among the imprisoned Japanese-Americans. They were loyal, honorable American citizens. The guilt was founded in the DNA of people who felt empowered when they imprison.

One hundred and fifty years after slavery, America still boasts the most elaborate system of prisons on Earth. And for many Americans - even today - to speak of freeing someone from America's Great Cage is hateful.

Witness Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, now under fire for pardoning prisoners his last day in office. Incredulous Americans ask, "Why did he do it? What's wrong with him?" We should be incredulous at America's incredulity - this people who so claim to believe in forgiveness and second chances.

Proponents of victims' rights were the first to speak out against Barbour. (Their thirst for vengeance is legend.) When they want to accent their fear of released prisoners, they speak of a "chilling effect" - a scare tactic, similar to how slaveholders would stoke a nation's fears by offering up images of freed black men roaming the countryside.

These Americans think nothing of a prisoner spending another year, another five years, another ten years in prison. If you were to ask: "What of the child who longs to be taken fishing by her imprisoned granddad?" Victims' rights is likely to respond, "What about me?" They know nothing of prison, nor of the families of prisoners.

Be assured: Prison is a kicking. Prisoners are kicked, and kicked, and kicked. It is a figurative kicking, unlike slavery, which was a literal kicking. But it is a kicking all the same.

These parallels between prison and slavery are just. Slavery was about denying a people their freedom. Prison is about denying family theirs. Of course punishment is necessary when crimes are committed. But when that punishment drags on, and on, and on…

The institution of slavery in America was as sick as any human endeavor. There the slave master despised his slave so that he heaped endless indignities upon him. Yet, he seemed to love his slave so that he was ready to see the entire house burn down rather than let his slave go.

Prison is not slavery. But as long as indignities are heaped upon prisoners as though they are hated, yet they are kept endlessly as though they are loved, we must begin to wonder if the State knows the difference.

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