As people around the world rejoice hearing news of a sweeping Russian amnesty freeing 26,000 prisoners - and one that targets non-violent offenders and vulnerable populations such as mothers of young children, minors, and the elderly - my thoughts couldn't help but turn to the U.S. prison system, and in my own land.
For just two days earlier, Bill Moyers & Company reported that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population yet houses 25 percent of its prisoners, with a total of 2 million of our inhabitants behind bars (compared to Russia's 700,000). Joshua Holland writes:
In large part, that’s the result of the “war on drugs” and long mandatory minimum sentences, but it also reflects America’s tendency to criminalize acts that other countries view as civil violations.Mr. Holland further elaborates with cases including, in "the land of the free," anything from absurd eight year sentences for importing lobster tails in plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes, to dozens of impoverished Alabama residents cruelly arrested because they couldn't afford to repair septic systems violating state health laws. (Would the state, on behalf of the public interest, fix those septic systems instead?) One of those arrested Americans was a single mother living in a mobile home with her autistic child, adding one vulnerable population on top of yet another, and yet another - if we'd like to look at this in terms of the standards set out by the Russian amnesty.
I mean, whose prison system makes whose prison system look worse? "My fellow Americans," in "the land of the free," presumptuously pleased to see Putin bringing Russia into the 21st century of America's so-called democracy - and with this modern day version of "Bastille" - please - please - look again, but at our own backyard.
According to Moyers, the American federal system alone has grown by 40 percent since 2001, with the number of federal inmates growing by 500 percent in the past 50 years, and nearly half of those imprisoned for drug offenses. Spending on locking human beings up in federal prisons has grown by 1100 percent, with our nation spending 29,000 dollars per year to jail each adult individual.
Consider, for a moment, how that money could be otherwise spent - on a national single payer health care system, for example, or an improved and expanded social security system providing an unconditional basic income (UBI). The amount of money the Swiss will be voting on as a UBI is roughly comparable at 33,516 USD per free individual per year. Wouldn't you rather see the money we spend incarcerating people spent, instead, on basic 21st century social safety nets? What is more "democratic?" A home or a cage? What makes for a better quality of living?
I mean, while we pour money down the proverbial drain unjustly locking people behind bars, there are (also) some serious problems "out here in the free world," as Dr. Seuss might say. Poverty, for one, among elderly American women is soaring, and, with the exception of Romania, Mr. Moyers has told us (yet again), no other developed nation has more children growing up in poverty than the U.S. The majority of Americans don't have enough money to save. There's all those people who could, instead, be going to college. In one fell swoop, we could (pretty much) directly abolish poverty, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., himself, proposed. Plus - as we breathe with relief at the release of the Arctic 30 and Pussy Riot - there are all the political prisoners we have locked up (if not driven out of the country altogether - one of whom even fled to Russia for his freedom); just to name a small few - Native American activist and poet Leonard Peltier - unjustly imprisoned since the 1970's, army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, along with the Guantanamo hunger strikers and those not even charged.
Will mainstream media get on their side too?
How ironic that these U.S. news establishments recently sang on for at least a week about the death - and celebrated life - of Nelson Mandela, yet another political prisoner I daresay their organizations would easily have ignored for decades, in their own land behind bars.
Are any of these American political prisoners that different?
What would Madiba say, unedited? What would really honor his life and memory?
The Moyers report comes out on the heels of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General releasing last week its annual review of DOJ operations. That, we are told, details "a growing crisis within the federal prison system that [also] threatens to undermine the DOJ’s other vital functions, including the enforcement of civil rights legislation, counter-terrorism and [real, for a change] crime-fighting."
In the following video preview, Mr. Moyers discusses our American "incarceration nation" with prison reform activist Michelle Alexander. She suggests we pursue the democracy that we deserve.
So, isn't it time the United States also had a mass amnesty - releasing, well, in the case of our country - not just a mere 26,000, but literally, at least, a million of its inhabitants?
Preview: Inequality Behind Bars from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.
*Photo credits/top, via Salon/AP, Eight female prisoners are shown sleeping on the floor of an intake cell in the Livingston County Jail in this photograph, taken over Veteran's Day weekend and obtained Friday by the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus and livingstondaily.com through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act."