I attended the meeting of a local organization of different faith communities who are deeply concerned about the fact that poor people sit in jail due to lack of money for even the lowest bail bond, which amounts to poor and mentally ill people sitting in jail before being convicted of a crime. There were a lot of good questions and comments by a lot of good people, despite this being such a complicated issue.
Facts and figures were discussed, including the price of keeping one person in jail in our county for one day – $87. This was mentioned in passing, but this dollar amount must have made an impression on one older, very professional looking white man in the corner. He piped up and asked probably the best question of the evening: [paraphrasing here, he had all the math worked out] So if it costs so much to keep people in jail, why are we still doing so even though it’s not economically smart and the taxpayer loses money?
A tepid silence fell over the room then, and since I abhor a vacuum, I softly muttered three words, “It’s an industry . . .” Several of the people doing most of the talking nodded and expressed grim agreement with me, but didn’t expound. The truth is that we didn’t have time to get into the particulars of bed quotas, the prison-industrial complex, political corruption on every level, and the apathy of those people not affected by criminal justice problems. I would personally recommend he delve into some Chomsky.
A disability activist I know went to a different meeting recently which aimed to start a dialogue about affordable, appropriate housing for the disabled, who are often homeless in my town. The mayor was there to answer questions and listen, but at the end he explained how his hands were tied as far as any housing solutions for us. The money and political will simply isn’t there.
I completely believe him about the lack of political will and concern for people like us, but there is plenty of money in our coffers. However, those funds are being diverted towards projects which directly target this population in a destructive way. I read the local paper and it is constantly crowing about new expenditures by the city, such as paving over and eliminating the one place downtown where the homeless and mentally ill can find shade from the southern heat and simply exist.
Or the new plan to spend tens of millions to expand the local CoreCivic (formerly CCA) prison facility capacity to “reduce overcrowding.” (Another way CoreCivic reduces overcrowding is by allowing people to die on their watch.) A tax hike was approved for this “public service” but no alternative or restorative solutions even make it up the ladder of power for consideration.
All the groups trying to change this stubbornly entrenched system of maltreatment and injustice towards the vulnerable have several big obstacles at the moment:
- Republican control of pretty much everything right now – hence the lack of “political will” which just seems like garden-variety compassion to me
- how to organize and who to involve – it’s been decades since the last round of sweeping civil rights reforms in America and we are rusty at this
- lack of charismatic leadership in key communities – we (minorities and the disabled) are so beaten down and robbed of our power and credibility that it is difficult for community cohesion to happen
- where to even begin – criminal justice problems are complicated and it’s difficult to find a chink in the armor of such a well-established system of institutions backed up by those with money, power, and many lawyers
But it doesn’t matter. These are times that define who we are and if we can’t find it within ourselves to correct atrocious treatment by our own leaders, locally and nationally, we don’t deserve our sense of American entitlement. We are no better than the multitude of countries we look down on for dystopian maltreatment of their citizens and those seeking asylum.
If you are concerned about these problems, roll up your sleeves, do some internet research, and call meetings in your communities. Don’t forget to cooperate with other helpful organizations in your area and share information. Show your local politicians that your city isn’t just about new businesses, nostalgia, and building projects for tourism and gentrification. Define your community by how “the least of these among you” are accommodated and saved from horrible circumstances.