June 18, 2012
The front page of the New York Times this week has a series of articles on the privatization of half-way houses for prisoners released from the New Jersey penal system. As the stories leak out about prisoner abuse, faulty triage of high risk prisoners, the sexual abuse of women by janitors on the night shift and the inevitable dots leading back to the political leaders of the the state whose motto is “Liberty and Prosperity” one might begin to ask liberty for whom? and prosperity for which interest group?
At the same time this Father’s Day weekend there was the silent (mostly) march from upper Manhattan to the Mayor’s residence by a group of citizens of New York who are putting their feet to the streets in defiance of the Stop and Frisk policies of the New York City Police Department and the signature method of securing the “peace” by the Commissioner.
What is clear through a huge body of literature, research and data from sociologists to activists in the Criminal Justice system is that the system of justice in the US is broken and has been for over forty years. The system of prisons that includes local jails, state and federal prisons has swollen in the forty years since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs from a few hundred thousand prisoners to 2.5 million incarcerated human beings approximately half in the “house” for drug possession charges. In addition, millions more are under state supervision through the various probation systems for previous contact with the criminal justice system. This marks them indelibly and through a variety of restrictive legalisms limits their prospects for re-entering society after having paid their debt. The collateral damage to children and families has been well articulated in too numerous to count articles, books and documentaries. Probably the most salient accounts recently have been Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ernie Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons.
I was reminded of one of my patients Juan Guerra (pseudonym) who ended up at Bellevue Hospital transferred from Rikers Island for some health issues. I asked him why he was back again? “I was walking my dog off a leash. It was the end of the month and the cops had to make their numbers. The rookie picked me up, checked my record in the computer and arrrested me.” The dog in question was a Chihuahua.