This month, I've devoted my Recommended Reading to a book who's subject is rarely talked about: The American Penal System.
CONNED: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House
© 2006, Sasha Abramsky
The New Press
Imagine, for a moment, that you are smoking a joint that you've just rolled from a key you've copped off your buddy (for some of you, this may not be much of a stretch at this particular moment). A knock comes on your door. You open it, and in walks a gaggle of police officers. You are arrested, and taken to jail.
Your lawyer, a tireless but overburdened fellow, comes to you with the prosecutor's offer: plead guilty to a lower felony possession charge, tell them where you got the pot, and they won't press the higher charge of possession with intent to distribute, which carries jail time.
You agree, narc on your buddy, and are sentenced to six months' probation and 2 years on parole.
Did you know that, in some states, you've just lost your right to vote permanently? And in others, your right to vote will now be hidden at the bottom of some drawer in a filing cabinet in the bowels of a half-vacated office building, never to be seen again unless you yourself go find it?
This is the theme of "Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House", Sasha Abramsky's new book about the American penal system.
In 1973, the American penal system held 400,000 prisoners. By 2005, no fewer than 2.2 million people, men and women, black, white and Hispanic, were serving time for crimes committed. This is a staggering number. In fact, 2.2 million exceeds any other country on the planet, including China, whose population is four times that of the US.
That's not "per capita" or rate of people imprisoned per hundred thousands of population. There are more people in the prison in the United States, population roughly 290 million, than in China, population 1.3 billion.
In addition, there are currently another seven million or so in other forms of the penal system: on parole, or probation.
On Wednesday, the vote to reaffirm the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was put off because Congresscritters from Southern states bridled at the fact that they were singled out for closer scrutiny under that law. Once you read "Conned," you will have a clearer insight into why that's true, and why it's correct to do so.
After the 2000 elections, we heard all about the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots and the 327 vote margin in Florida. What we didn't hear is that 400,000 people were wrongly disenfranchised of their votes. If even one percent of them had voted and if you allow the most extreme case, then this vote would have broken 60-40 Democrat, and Al Gore would have won Florida by 2,000 votes, never mind that he would have won several other states who subsequently modified their disenfranchisement policies. And you wouldn't have hanging chads or Pat Buchanan receiving Gore votes to talk about.
More than 4 million Americans currently have lost the right to vote. In some places, notably in the South, one in three black men have lost that right. And while the situation nationally has gotten better since the 2000 elections, in the South, it has actually gotten harder to regain the vote, and as such, because criminal justice tends to be skewed against blacks and other minorities, it has effectively disenfranchised people on racial grounds.
The argument can be made that felons (the Neo-Con term for "nigger") deserve to lose their vote: after all, they have broken the social contract. But the American penal system is nominally designed to put a person in the position of having "paid his debt to society." Clearly, as Abramsky's research has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is not the case at all.
Abramsky makes a strong case that this goes beyond justice to the level of a civil rights issue. The South, as Abramsky explained in a talk on Wednesday about "Conned," remains strongly tied to a 19th Century Victorian model where only propertied people, people who produce for society, should have a say in the governance. Further, he believes that this issue of disenfranchisement, once a national standard, is an outgrowth of medieval Europe's manner of dealing with felons: if they didn't execute them on the spot, they would brand them with the "Felon's Mark" which essentially was civil death and made them lose any civil protection. Citizens could do anything they wanted to them with no reprisals.
Abramsky takes a statistically-laden subject (because, in truth, the society impact of these laws can only be measured numerically: how many votes were lost, who would have won this election if these laws didn't exist, and so on) and writes an informative narrative, which he hangs on his travels about the country with his companion, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, a study of this newfangled American idea that securing people in prisons and rehabilitating them to reincorporate them into society might actually work which eventually turned into a monograph on democracy, freedom, race relations and a panoply of issues unique to America.
While I found the writing style choppy, I was able to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion: this is an issue that needs larger coverage and it is a lot more important than the current political system is allowing for.