We’re all doing time

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 29, 2007

But why have convicts, particularly, become such targets? Historically, cruelty toward convicts has been common, but only recently did Americans decide to be so harsh to this group — and continually enlarge the group.

I knew some explanations: the War on Drugs, the sexual moral panics, the prison-industrial complex, the rage for lengthy mandatory sentences. And then there is racism: Over 70 percent of prisoners are African American or Hispanic.

To give a deeper explanation, Lozoff told a story.

In 1999, just after hearing the news of the Columbine school shootings, he and his wife went into a scheduled retreat with an Amish-like community in their home state of North Carolina. For three days, they were not exposed to the news media.

When they re-emerged, “There already was theme music, graphics, and commercials” on the television news shows about Columbine, he said. “You have to back up to see the evil: making money from Columbine.”

This sight of media opportunism helped convince him that in America every value has been subordinated to a nightmarish, “narcissistic” consumerism. But selfishness is unhappy. Lozoff cited three signs of our unhappiness: We consume antidepressants like no other society. “Our children are the most violent on earth.” And then there are the prisons.

In a narcissistic society, “People without the resources to fulfill their self-centeredness commit crimes,” he said. Criminals tend to be poor and uneducated. Many are mentally ill and addicted to drugs.

As well, in a selfish, unhappy society, many people blame others for their troubles. And self-centered people don’t have time to look into the criminal-justice and prison systems and demand change.

Lozoff’s thoughts rang a bell. Earlier this year, I had interviewed Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a University of Southern California scholar. She believes that our country’s leaders enacted “saturation” policing, which fed the prisons, and “iron-fisted” imprisonment because they feared a formidable group of economic losers: those with limited education, many of them black, who would have worked in manufacturing before it began collapsing in the corporate-globalizing economy just about 30 years ago.

Round-the-clock promotion of selfish consumerism and a big class of people unable to buy things are a combustible mixture. Plus, as the wealth of the rich has exploded over the past 30 years, the poor have imploded not just in income, but also in the destruction of community and family that a market-dominated society encourages. Sharing is bad for business (fewer goods and services are sold), and labor insecurity and mobility are good for it.

These ideas deserve more study. Is Professor Gilmore developing a conspiracy theory? But I quickly had the opportunity to focus on Lozoff’s idea that the self-centeredness of some citizens doesn’t give them the time to address the prison craziness.

That evening he spoke at the Belfast Unitarian Universalist Church to about 80 middle-class liberals. He sat cross-legged on a blue mat as he talked of the prison horrors he had seen and the compassionate attention prisoners needed.

He also summarized the lessons of the great teachers and scriptures, including: Don’t be selfish and materialistic. Dedicate yourselves to others. I imagined him preaching these timeless truths to the inmate hard core! But only a receptive 10 percent of prisoners showed up at his workshops, he had told me.

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