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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Arresting Our Way to "Justice"

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The figures boggle the mind. Approximately 11 million Americans cycle through our jails and prisons each year (including a vast "pre-trial population" of those arrested and not convicted and those who simply can't make bail). At any moment, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 2.3 million people in our "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories." In some parts of the country, there are more people in jail than at college.

If you want a partial explanation for this, keep in mind that there are cities in this country that register more arrests for minor infractions each year than inhabitants. Take Ferguson, Missouri, now mainly known as the home of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in 2014 by a town policeman. The Harvard Law Review reported that, in 2013, Ferguson had a population of 22,000. That same year "its municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses," or almost one-and-a-half arrests per inhabitant.

And then there are the conditions in which all those record-breaking numbers of people live in our jails and prisons. At any given time, 80,000 to 100,000 inmates in state and federal prisons are held in "restrictive housing" (aka solitary confinement). And those numbers don't even include county jails, deportation centers, and juvenile justice institutions. Rikers Island, New York City's infamous jail complex in its East River, has 990 solitary cells. And keep in mind that solitary confinement -- being stuck in a six-by-nine or eight-by-10-foot cell for 23 or 24 hours a day -- is widely recognized as a form of psychosis-inducing torture.

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And that, of course, is just to begin to explore America's vast and ever-expanding prison universe. The fact is that it's hard to fathom even the basics of the American urge to lock people away in vast numbers, which is why today TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon focuses instead on what it might mean for justice in this country if we started to consider alternatives to prison. Tom

There Oughta Be a Law...
Should Prison Really Be the American Way?
By Rebecca Gordon

You've heard of distracted driving? It causes quite a few auto accidents and it's illegal in a majority of states.

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Well, this year, a brave New Jersey state senator, a Democrat, took on the pernicious problem of distracted walking. Faced with the fact that some people can't tear themselves away from their smartphones long enough to get across a street in safety, Pamela Lampitt of Camden, New Jersey, proposed a law making it a crime to cross a street while texting. Violators would face a fine, and repeat violators up to 15 days in jail . Similar measures, says the Washington Post, have been proposed (though not passed) in Arkansas, Nevada, and New York. This May, a bill on the subject made it out of committee in Hawaii.

That's right. In several states around the country, one response to people being struck by cars in intersections is to consider preemptively sending some of those prospective accident victims to jail. This would be funny, if it weren't emblematic of something larger. We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it, and then punish those who break it.

I've been teaching an ethics class at the University of San Francisco for years now, and at the start of every semester, I always ask my students this deceptively simple question: What's your definition of justice?

As you might expect in a classroom where half the students are young people of color, up to a third are first-generation college goers, and maybe a sixth come from outside the United States, the answers vary. For some students, justice means "standing up for the little guy." For many, it involves some combination of "fairness" and "equality," which often means treating everyone exactly the same way, regardless of race, gender, or anything else. Others display a more sophisticated understanding. An economics major writes, for instance,

"People are born unequal in genetic potential, financial and environmental stability, racial prejudice, geographic conditions, and nearly every other facet of life imaginable. I believe that the aim of a just society is to enable its citizens to overcome or improve their inherited inequalities."

A Danish student compares his country to the one where he's studying:

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"The Danish welfare system is constructed in such a way that people pay more in taxes and the government plays a significant role in the country. We have free healthcare, education and financial aid to the less fortunate. Personally, I believe this is a just system where we take care of our own."

For a young Latino, justice has a cosmic dimension:

"My sense of justice tends to revolve around my idea that the universe and life are so grand and inexplicable that everything you put into it comes back to you. This I can trace to my childhood, when my mother would tell me to do everything in life with 'love, faith, and courage.' Ever since, I believe that any action or endeavor that is guided by these three qualities can be considered just."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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