Exactly What They Promise

By Alex M

Amidst all the (deliberately?) distractive hullabaloo about Russian connections and Obama wire taps (really?!), the new administration has gotten but a few things done. Yet those actions might be wildly unpopular if attended to widely. One such move was the reversal of the last administration's official move away from private prisons. When Mr. Trump quietly signed off on that order and deployed Sessions to enact and defend it, he acted contrary to evidence, social will, and human decency. This is particularly scary for those of us behind bars, who widely despise and fear profit-seeking human warehouses. For us, analysis of this move and its justification send some powerfully alarming signals that amplify our initial concern following the election. 

First off, this demonstrates that Mr. Trump is not paying attention to established best practices and disregarding scientific evidence. For nearing 20 years, the vast majority of research from multiple fields has found that private prisons are worse for the people inside, with more violence (from residents and employees alike) and worse healthcare, treatment, and education. The savings for taxpayers are minimal to nonexistent and any scraps come from passing along the burden of actually helping people get ready for society to other groups and programs after release. Thus, private prisons actually reduce public safety by skimping on the cost effective strategies needed to most efficiently help keep everyone safely on the streets. That is why the Obama administration changed the policy, a commitment to evidence-based policy.

Jeff Session defended the rollback by first saying that the humanistic, progressive change overseen by Sally Yates "changed longstanding policy and practice." In reality, private federal prisons hadn't taken hold until the late 1980s, so that was actually more of a change to lengthy precedent. What he clearly meant was that they did not approve of the now-established-in-this-industry longstanding crony conservative orthodoxy of having a very few well connected folks get wealthy by providing social services that government does just as well or better. This signals Trump's increasingly evident plan to prioritize policy that benefits the already wealthy.

Worst of all, Sessions also said that this was necessary "to meet the future needs" for prison space. Are you serious here?! They are publicly announcing that they are expecting to expand, not reduce, mass incarceration. No interpretation needed. With about 2.5 million people behind behind bars in an era with near historic low crime rates nationally (and most cities still, contrary to alternative facts), this administration signals the intent to put more people behind bars. Who would you expect that might mostly include? Probably not wealthy socialites with false beliefs that women are their personal bowling balls or eye candy. Probably not moguls who cheat taxes or bankers who scheme mortgage holders. This will further disenfranchise minor rule breakers from marginalized groups, exactly those we should seek to help.

Thus, this announcement also signals disregard for the will of the people. Prison reform had gained headway because, upon media attention to the reality of the situation, most Americans had decided that being number one in locking people up was not a national virtue. Expanding the prison state is only wanted by a minority of misinformed, bigoted, and/or self-benefiting Americans. 

During my time at a private jail, I could not get any mental health treatment even when nearly suicidal with depression. I was kept in isolation for over a year without any infractions because they didn't like me. Beatings by guards were regularly condoned in un-camera-ed areas. State-run prison isn't great by any means, but it is far less violent (all types) and the health care, though marginal, at least exists. Here, there is at least some recourse and oversight, lacking entirely in private facilities. Moreover, my experiences match precisely the broader literature on this topic, of which I have some knowledge, having studied with people who did the research. From people behind bars to underpaid employees to taxpayers to budgets, private prisons are bad for everyone. 

Even without all that, are we really a culture that condones a few wealthy men making millions off the misery, miseducation, and caging of human beings? Is that what Jesus would do?

Yet here is this administration, signalling to everyone publicly, albeit with little fanfare, that they want more folks locked up, more families and communities separated, and they want this to occur in a manner that makes it more dangerous but enriches their associates. They intend to oppress many for a few to gain. These are the clear signals being sent here, by the allegedly Christian-oriented administration. 

While this may seem outrageous, it is not absurdist. The old joke goes, it is not paranoia if they're really out to get you. Truly, though, it is not a conspiracy theory if you are only projecting exactly what they're saying. 

Alex M is a brother who is currently incarcerated. 

PrisonLectionary.net is a virtual space devoted to biblical interpretation by artists and authors incarcerated in the United States. Prison Lectionary provides a forum for the voices of prisoners—who are the most authoritative witnesses to incarceration—and serves as a resource for those who study the Revised Common Lectionary or other Scriptures.  Our hope is that Prison Lectionary will be a point of connection for people without personal knowledge of the crisis of incarceration in the United States. With the Bible as a shared resource, reading and viewing the creative work of prisoners can humanize the abstract issues of criminal justice and dispel harmful misconceptions about prisoners. Thus, our goal is to facilitate a dialogue that privileges the voices of prisoners.  For more information, please contact Will Andrews at prisonlectionary@outlook.com.

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