There’s one form of affordable, secure housing that’s readily available to the American working class – prison. There are over 2 million people incarcerated in the US, the highest per-capita rate in the world and 1 in 3 young African-Americans pass through the unforgiving, byzantine US judicial system, often ending up in one of the nation’s 3,200 jails. Locking people up is a multi-billion dollar industry here and there have been several cases where direct links have been found between the judiciary and the private companies who run the ‘correctional facilities’.
The prison industrial complex is one of the ugliest sides of America and its most disgusting feature is capital punishment. Although this medieval practice is beginning to lose political legitimacy, executions are still carried out regularly in some states and as in the penal system as a whole, have a strong ethnic bias.
It would take a better writer than me to capture the full brutality, absurdity and inhumanity of death row, but I went there yesterday to visit a friend whose been waiting for 26 years for the (often perceived as liberal) state of Oregon to decide if and when it wants to kill him. I’ve known Ray for 23 of those years. We haven’t ‘met’ (if that’s how you can describe a conversation conducted over the phone on two sides of perspex) since 1993. During that time he’s grown physically and mentally. It’s not easy to keep fit when you spend 23 hours a day in a 10 foot by 8 foot cell being fed crap food. Ray now weighs over 300 pounds and has multiple serious health problems. In effect, he is being executed slowly while the capricious wheels of the US judicial system grind.
For many Americans, Ray is the personification of bad. In a culture with a pervasive, simplistic, unforgiving sense of good v evil, there’s a widespread view that people like Ray, even if they aren’t killed, should never be readmitted to the society that shaped them. Ray makes no excuses for the actions that led him to where he is, but he’s the product of generations of violence, both within his family and the wider American experience.
In the time we’ve known each other, we’ve both grown older, balder and blinder but Ray (at least) has grown wiser. Yesterday he said to me ‘The point about life is to be kind to each other. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want anyone to hurt me.’ Ray’s learned this lesson the hard way and he’s fully aware that others suffered before he did learn it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are now spent on keeping him where he is and deciding whether he should stay there, be released or enter the little room that adjoins where we met to be killed.
The death penalty is the most grotesque aspect of the US judicial system, but the routine incarceration of milliions reflects the depravity at the heart of capitalism. As well as the huge profits made by managing jails, corporations make even more money by exploiting cheap prison labour in what has been described as the new slavery. Within the progreesive force mustering here is a move to form an inmates union and demand a minimum wage for prison labour. Even more hopeful, in a nation with more prisons that colleges, is the slogan ‘Don’t incarcerate – educate!’