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Prison Nation - Capital Times 2003

Capital Times, Jan. 1, 2003.
Book Review - Prison Nation - Capital Times 2003


Capital Times (Madison, WI) February 28, 2003 Friday

By Lee Sensenbrenner

A hitchhiker who had been walking the shoulder of I-94 carrying a loaded black garbage bag told me, as we drove toward Madison, that he had gotten out of the Racine County Jail that day.

I was 22 at the time, and he certainly wasn't any older than I was. He looked like he was probably in his teens, and when he showed me what was in his bag it was a big surprise: his favorite stuffed animals.

After I dropped him off, I felt that aside from the 30-minute conversation I had had with this boy, I had no idea what incarceration was like, what purpose it truly served and who it really included.

The writers of the essays that compose "Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor" tear apart an incarceration system that holds 2 million Americans, most of whom are like the hitchhiker I met -- young, black males convicted of nonviolent offenses.

Paul Wright, a prisoner in Washington state who co-edited the book, calls the incarceration system "the most thoroughly implemented social experiment in American history."

Whether or not that's an exaggeration, the number of prisoners in the United States has grown to be roughly seven times what it was 20 years ago, without any corresponding rise in crime.

Prison spending has become obese in nearly all states, and California has been paying more to build new cells than it has been spending for higher education. California's inmate population, according to writer Eric Schlosser, now outnumbers the inmate population of France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.

Small rural towns that have seen plants close, as Chicago Urban League researcher Paul Street writes, are seeing new prison complexes as ways to revive their failing economies.

"As everyone knows but few like to discuss, the mostly white residents of those towns are building their economic dreams' on the transport and lockdown of unfree African-Americans from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods," Street writes.

The essays lay out, as writer Eric Schlosser put it, "a set of bureaucratic, political and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of actual need."

From Wisconsin comes an example, told by prisoner Adrian Lomax, of how this happens.

In 1996, the Fabry Glove & Mitten Co. of Green Bay took advantage of a change in labor law put forward the year before by Gov. Tommy Thompson.

The new law allowed Fabry Glove to set up shop inside the state's prisons. There, they could get employees who required no benefits and who would perform for minimum wage, two-thirds of which went to the Department of Corrections for housing them.

Even after Fabry laid off the bulk of its regular employees, the Thompson administration defended the arrangement, saying it was necessary to keep the operation from moving to Asia.

The people who feed systems like this -- the poor, the illiterate -- are, as the book illustrates, kicked at every step of the process.

First, they are arrested for breaking laws that target urban minority populations, then provided basically no defense against prosecutors who tend to overreach. They possibly wind up in the growing crop of private prisons, where they are all but certain to be farmed out as cheap labor to corporations such as Boeing, Nintendo and Starbucks.

If they survive the brutality of prison to make parole, due process is virtually suspended, as Kelly Virella relates in the story of Joseph Bostic. Bostic, who had been clean and working for a construction company after serving seven years, was put back in prison for three years for overdrawing his checking account by $341.

Noam Chomsky gives a broad perspective on the most active usher of the prison system, the War on Drugs.

"In the United States the drug war is basically a technique for controlling dangerous populations internal to the country and doesn't have much to do with drugs," Chomsky writes.

"The more you can increase the fear of drugs and crime and welfare mothers and immigrants and aliens and poverty and all sorts of things, the more you control people. Make them hate each other. Be frightened of each other and think that the other is stealing from them. If you do that you can control people. And that's just what the drug war does."

Chomsky's short essay is among the few to broadly engage a topic. Most of the 41 essays are strictly defined -- some fighting to prove a point as narrowly as a court case. And this is perhaps the book's weakness.

Although "Prison Nation" collects a lot of power, the essays, pulled from over five years' worth of liberal publications, seem to lack a cohesive voice for what must be done. And by the same token, "Prison Nation" offers no overarching analysis of the prison system, but instead makes a moving case for change with a mosaic of voices.

Lee Sensenbrenner is a reporter for The Capital Times.

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