can’t see the forest

Charles Platt on Texas-style justice and the U.S. penal system

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Science-fiction author Charles Platt published this piece in BoingBoing describing a visit to see his penpal Son Tran, a homicide convict and inmate in Texas jailed for gang-related killings at age 17. Not only does Platt describe the prison environment with the vivid eloquence of a seasoned narrator, he reminds us of the idosyncracies and absurdities inherent in the medieval penal system flourishing in what is supposed to be one of the world’s more enlightened states:

This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.

Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.

The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.

The United States has the highest prison population, as a percentage of the general populace, of any nation on Earth, according to a King’s College, London study—762 per 100,000, more than half again as many as Cuba and about six times as many as China.

Platt notes that, from about 1925 to 1975, the U.S. prison population stayed near the international average. Since then, it has mushroomed. Platt suggests that reactionary social conservatism and a sensationalist media coupled with large building and maintenance budgets makes our penchant for lock-ups possible and helps give vigor and vitality to a culture of fear and retribution.

Great article.

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