The world changed when a shocked nation saw the horrific video of George Floyd’s life being snuffed out by officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death sparked outrage and in the aftermath people took to the streets–white and black together–wearing their Black Lives Matter t-shirts, marching hand in hand in the name of brotherhood, unity, and justice. This came as a surprise to some because we live in a country that has always struggled with racism and separatism. African-Americans have long protested excessive force and fake arrests, but their complaints always fell on deaf ears. White Americans believed that no way in their country did police just randomly beat someone for no reason. If it did happen, then it’s because the person did something to deserve it. But the death of George Floyd changed that narrative.
It’s been that way since incarceration became a form of punishment. But the abuse kicked into high gear in the ‘70s when President Nixon declared a war on drugs. In the ‘80s President Reagan took up the fight and announced his own war on crime. This had a strong impact on the mind and views of the American public who were looking for scapegoats for their weaknesses and failures as a country, and they took up the war cry. As with most wars, its victims were the poor and those with brown or black skin. In the US crusade to end crime, penalties were increased, new crimes invented, and support of the death penalty even rose to an outstanding 80%!
If you ask politicians the ends for which laws are designed, they will answer that laws are designed as a protection for the poor and weak. But surely no assertion could be so ludicrous, since it is the poor that bear the brunt of the punishments of the same laws that are deemed to protect them. Those who call themselves the protectors of the Constitution and American values are the ones who believe they have right, logic, and history on their side, but that history has always been rooted in violence and racism.
When these campaigns against crime started, what it ultimately did was create an apocalyptic condition where law enforcement was allowed to arrest those who broke all these new laws and the justice system was allowed to severely punish those as they deemed fit with very little interference from the outside. As more prisons were built, more people were needed to guard inmates and thus the training and requirement to do so became very lax and watered down. What you had was a group of caretakers ill-equipped to handle their charges, and America has proven over and over that when it gets to that point, compassion goes out the window, and it resorts to what it knows best: violence.
For decades prisoners have complained of the abuse inflicted on them by correction officers. But just like the cries of African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, their plaints were dismissed and not taken seriously. It’s not hard to reason or believe that if abuse is happening in the streets of America, then the same thing is happening in an environment very little people care about, where the doors are closed. In prison there are no cell phones or anything to back up the complaints of inmates who have been beaten, choked, tased, gassed, and shot. In the late ‘70s a movie called “Alien” came out, and its slogan was: “In space no one can hear you scream.” That’s what today’s prisons are: the final frontier.
When violent events have happened where excessive force has been used, it’s ultra-easy for officials to say that the inmate was being uncooperative and thus, force was necessary. The inmate loses every time in this situation because no one is going to believe the word of a convicted felon over the word of a sworn officer and his associates. So the abuse continues, unchecked and unaccounted for. Years and years of this physical and mental abuse suffered by prisoners has done serious damage to the psyche of the individual, especially those who have been locked up for dozens of years or even decades. Author Emma Goldman gave a grim account of today’s prisoners:
“Year after year the gates of prison hell return to society an emancipated, deformed, shipwrecked crew of humanity, with the Cain mark on their foreheads, their hopes crushed, all their natural inclinations to live peacefully thwarted… These personal experiences are substantiated by extensive data giving overwhelming proof of the utter futility of prisons as a means of deterrence or reform.”
Don’t miss: Frederick Paine’s “From a Childhood in Hell to Death Row”
No one is arguing against the necessity of punishment because no society can survive without law and order. To do so would invite anarchy, and no nation can endure that. But prison reform does need to happen, and fixing the problem starts with lawmakers. The first necessity to lessen crime and to relieve victims and accused from the cruelty of moral judgments is a change of public opinion, which has always been steered toward disdain for those who have broken the law. Once that happens all possible things such as prison reform and the end of abuse will flow from it. The discouraging thing is that society is fickle and tends to shift its views and beliefs almost on a daily basis, which could erase years of patient effort made by those who want to make this nation, and world, a better place to live for everyone.
But as long as lawmakers, politicians, judges, and law enforcement collectively impose their will upon people, which is often counterproductive toward the growth of America, then the problems will continue and there will be more George Floyds, both in and out of our prisons. It’s not expected that all maladjustments and flaws in the system can ever be eradicated, but reforms are made by the vigor, courage, and sensitivity of not only our leaders but the public. Great reforms and change are not accomplished by reasoning, but by feeling. They come not solely from a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. The world can’t change unless we do. Abuse of anybody–women, citizens, the elderly, and prisoners–continues only if it’s allowed to. Social change shouldn’t just occur in the streets. Thus, “Stop all abuse behind prison walls!” should be our rallying cry.
Frederick Paine #32945
SDCC PO BOX 208
Indian Springs, NV 89070