“While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” — Eugene V. Debs
“This is the very worst wickedness, that we refuse to acknowledge the passionate evil that is in us. This makes us secret and rotten.” — D.H. Lawrence
Not even the worst criminals in the world deserve to be incarcerated the way they are presently put away to rot in torturous confinement. No exceptions. No hyperbole here.
FO stands for Felons Outfacing. It is a new non-profit organization in the U.S. which intends to organize the incarcerated in such a way as to enable them to boldly confront those who profit from the Prison Industrial Complex, and secure significant reins of decision-making powers for prisoners, their loved ones and all citizens who have infinite compassion for their horrid plight. It is not registered with any state, however, for the powers that be have placed clever parameters on non-profits which prevent them from engaging in the electoral arena meaningfully.
The prison system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you, says Damien Echols,They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent’s funeral, according to that West Memphis Three member, who also underscored for me that imprisonment itself entailing loss of liberty, loss of citizenship, separation from family and loved ones, is punishment enough for most individuals, no matter how favorable the circumstances under which their time is passed.
Anyone who thinks differently about that last point has either never known the horror of being put away first hand, or lacks the humanity to empathize with another. The most extreme criminals should not be lumped — as they are, routinely — with the vast majority of the incarcerated. But, again, even the worst of the worst — in a civilized setting — must be handled differently than they are at, say, Pelican Bay. That’s no way to treat any life, and our ongoing abominations in the domestic realm which I’m spotlighting here guarantees that our overseas atrocities will continue… as they have since the inception of this country, the United States of Amnesia.
I’ve taught students on all levels in the U.S. — all across the demographic spectrum — for half-a-century, and I can count on two hands the number of youngsters and colleagues who really understood the U.S. track record (dis)respecting the life of The Other when I first crossed paths with them. Our educational system very simply reinforces our comfort with injustice and inhumanity by emphasizing our “exceptional” national nature and/or by making inexplicable distinctions between the incarcerated and those who have never been arrested.
Imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions — poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed — which are at the root of most punished crime. “The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished,” my mentor Howard Zinn never tired of repeating. [See the final paragraph below.]
The notion that a vast gulf exists between criminals and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about them. “The reality, though, according to Michelle Alexander, is that all of us have done wrong.”
Bryan Stevenson has said that each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. “No one is just the crime he or she commits,” according to the founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. But I’d go one better than that. For me, it’s clear that each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever contemplated doing. Too many people forget how close they came at a crucial juncture in their lives to killing someone. I’d say that that goes for the vast majority of those adults among our out-of-whack, privileged United States citizenry. The entitled are easily enraged, and deadly engagement these days is — daily — one wrong second’s turn this way or that more than ever.
“The greater ignorance toward a country,” said Criss Jami, “is not ignoring what its politicians have to say; it is ignoring what the inmates in its prisons have to say.” Well, I take that comment as spot on, and I intend to do everything I can to give felons and their brothers and sisters an unprecedented voice in the U.S. via the new FO, defiantly not only thinking and acting outside the proverbial box, but — nonviolently — smashing the box to bits.
The fact is that if one were to release the entire prison population in the U.S. overnight — with absolutely no preparation — all of the formerly incarcerated souls could not do as much damage in a full year as what Bechtel or Monsanto does routinely every week worldwide.
There’s something that begs to be addressed respecting that fact of our lives.
Rachel Oxman is an activist, educator and journalist. She can be reached for more details about FO at email@example.com.