Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hell is Other People

While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
-Eugene Debs

On my best, most enlightened, days I figure people are doing as well as they can in difficult situations with limited resources; on my worst, I want to chew their eyes out of their fucking heads. Most days I am somewhere in between.

I tend to find relief from this manic fluctuation in movies, books, and drink. They are consistent and provocative. They help me to think and to understand what I am thinking and, more importantly, to contextualize my thinking. They can also highlight human absurdity and provide strategies for dealing with it. They are why I don't have pieces of eye in my teeth.

A fine example of human absurdity is the American prison system. Right now there are well over two million Americans in jail or prison. A little less than half are in for non-violent crimes. The United States has the highest documented per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world. If we weren't so busy watching mentally disabled people run through obstacle courses on television, we might get the idea that something has gone horribly wrong.

You don't have to be Michel Foucault to understand the problem. There are people at every level of the incarceration process and people are normally bad at thinking. Our frontal lobes are too small and our adrenal glands are too big, to quote Hitchens, and we are lucky to have made it this far. We are only barely removed from our hunter/gatherer status and, if the Berkeley study is to be believed, a full 98% of our thought is unconscious.

Take Chad, the twenty-seven year old, unemployed bartender who has been up for two weeks, feverishly reorganizing his sock drawer and who may have been spanked once as a child. He gets into his Chevy Cavalier and heads out to Longs at three in the morning because he can't feel his eyes. On the way he notices that people are looking at him funny. He pulls over and grabs a screwdriver from his glove compartment. He strolls over to Jenny, who has no business being out at three in the morning anyway, and plunges the screwdriver into her neck.

Brian, the police officer whose lust for guns and loud noises has put him in good stead with the rest of the guys and whose GED certificate hangs proudly on a wall in his mom's trailer, springs from his patrol vehicle and gleefully tasers Chad while beating him about the face and neck with his baton.

The arrest report hits Virginia's desk and she thinks back to college, where a guy named Chad (or was it Chaz?) may or may not have date raped her. Her psychiatrist had tried, on several occasions, to explain to her that the sex was consensual and that she was really mad at her step-father, Chet, but she had stopped going to therapy and, anyway, what do psychiatrists know? She is a new Public Defender and she has so many cases. And her dog, Ribbons, has seemed lethargic lately.

When she has her first meeting with Ron, she can't help but notice that he looks a little like Chuck Woolery. He can't help but notice that she won't be much of a challenge. Ron is 6'3", has all of his teeth, and sings baritone for the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. His golf swing has a natural left to right. His friend, Travis, thinks he heard him say the word 'shit' once. He will be a congressman in seven years.

The courtroom is quiet except for the persistent humming of the air conditioner. The Honorable Judge Judith Flester is sweating like a Kings of Leon roadie at Bonnaroo. She has never masturbated and often wonders if there isn't something wrong with her "down there." Every workday, a full slate of TiVo'd daytime television is waiting for her when she gets home. She calls it her 'routine' when she talks to her scrapbooking friends.

Chad is sitting next to Wayne on the bus to Corcoran. Wayne remembers reading somewhere that Corcoran is the most troubled of California's 32 state prisons. He ran over a Japanese woman named Miyako in the Rite-Aid parking lot in Bakersfield. He blew a .32 on the breathalyzer and was dutifully flogged. Chad is wondering whether Wayne is gay or not and if those rumors about prison rape are exaggerated. The bus smells a little like Wayne's gym.

Capt. Wiggins has patrolled Level IV housing for eighteen years. He relentlessly jacks-off to a Nickelodeon web-site he stumbled across, while googling Mike Nichols, and secretly hopes his wife will catch him. He has roughed up countless inmates over his eighteen years but becomes queasy at the sight of blood. He thinks this is ironic. He isn't exactly sure what ironic means.

Gunther is carving the symbol of the Aryan Brotherhood into Wayne's ass. It is Gunther's second ass carving of the day and he is starving. He is the son of a dentist and, like Ron, has incredible teeth. When he was eight, he saw his sister touching the neighbor's dog's penis and he couldn't stop laughing, even at dinner, and he got in trouble and was sent to his room to think about it. In prison, the fork is commonly considered the best tool with which to make a weapon. Gunther prefers the tightly rolled newspaper and as a result is known around the yard as "The Editor." He has no idea why.

There are some unfortunate tattoos on Chad's upper body. One is supposed to represent a mermaid going down on Uncle Sam, but looks more like an aerial map of Finland. Gunther mistakes it for an Asian gang symbol of some kind and shoves his weapon of choice through Chad's left eye. As Chad is convulsing, he wonders if his life will flash before his eyes and dies. Gunther is sent to the hole, for one month, where he will not think of anything.

Wayne can tell you, quite convincingly, that those rumors about prison rape are not exaggerated.

And this may be as good as it gets. It's a truism that ours is the worst legal system in the world, except for all the others. Still, common sense dictates that prison can't possibly work, much less rehabilitate, as long as we do stupid things like locking up violent offenders with the non-violent; as long as we continue to adhere to mandatory sentencing or participate in wars against drugs and vice; as long as one shining asshole with a head full of atavistic nonsense still believes in the death penalty; we are doomed. Whether they are well-intentioned or sublimely idiotic, people will fuck up complicated problems as long as there are people left to fuck them up. Sartre was right.

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