It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25% of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime (in the U.S.) is at historic lows (violent and property crimes are down 45% in the last two decades). A disproportionately large share of prisoners are African American and other people of color, many of whom are in prison for nonviolent crimes. The majority of the more than $87 billion spent annually on incarceration comes from state and local taxpayers. All in all, hundreds of dollars per taxpayer are spent every year on a system that in the end creates more poverty and extreme human suffering..
In May Mt. Baker Meaningful Movies showed “Rikers, An American Jail”, a recently-released and riveting documentary from BIll Moyers. We heard directly through powerful interviews with Rikers survivors of the pervasive violence and dehumanizing treatment perpetrated by guards, and about the culture of predation which is allowed to run rampant at Rikers – among the 10 worst jails in the country.
Right to a “speedy trial”??? Not so much: of the 7,500 persons incarcerated at Rikers on a given day, approximately 80% have not been declared either guilty or innocent! Many spend years there. Deaths are not uncommon. This unconstitutional state of affairs is far from unique to Rikers.
Following the film screening our guest speaker, John Page, himself a former prisoner, spoke knowledgeably about the institutional racism reflected in our prisons and justice system, and about America’s prison-industrial complex, an exceedingly profitable and burgeoning business. We had a long and ranging audience discussion – one of our best ever. Among other issues John talked about how almost impossible it is to successfully re-enter society, get a job and restart your life as an “ex-con”, illustrating the point with his personal experiences of being denied jobs in spite of his college degree, positive work history and other qualifications. We’re grateful to Mr. Page for generously sharing his time and expertise.
John sent us an excellent bibliography for those interested in a deeper dive into the history and issues surrounding racism in America and our prison system. Click on this link to access it.