From: Michael Greven
Recent conversations in our country have prompted me to think hard about the convenience of incarceration and its impact on our society. As a nation, we have allowed flawed thought processes to become our accepted norms.
It is normal to incarcerate men of color for extended periods over insignificant violations.
It is normal to allow homeless people to remain homeless, and if they become problematic, we incarcerate them.
It is normal to provide minimal mental health care services to those of lesser means, and if they become problematic, we incarcerate them.
It is normal for deadly force to be employed unevenly across racial lines with modest reaction from all communities other than the black community.
It is normal for Americans to spend from $30,000 to $60,000 per year per prison inmate and a similar sum to deal with homeless persons.
It is normal for most white Americans and affluent people of color to go about their daily business and not give mass incarceration much thought.
It is normal for our government officials to focus on building prisons accommodating large populations rather than consider alternate means of solving the societal problem.
It is normal for our government officials to relegate the feeding of poor people to volunteer organizations.
It is normal for our leaders to spend countless millions of dollars on high tech equipment for the police.
It is normal for our leaders to cut funds for nutrition and mental health programs for the poor.
Each of those statements hurt and offend, but at the same time they are fundamentally true, and that is most painful. It is critical that we recognize our failures and move forward to reduce incarceration rates for those of color, lesser means and of limited mental abilities. These people — our fellow Americans — make up a growing portion of our population.
To end this destructive cycle for the individuals and our society we need to:
- Feed hungry children before, during and after school.
- Assist families with education and jobs as they struggle to meet the challenges of this rapidly changing world.
- Make sure that all children have the best opportunities to succeed in education, whether a skilled trade or higher academics.
- Help those who become addicted to drugs become contributing members to society.
Stop incarcerating and start counseling, training for jobs, and when needed create jobs that benefit the community. The fiscal and social math of incarceration doesn’t work. Society can’t afford a huge incarcerated population costing as much as $60,000 per year per inmate.
As the son of post-World War II German immigrants, I have spent time considering the words “prison,” “gulag” and “concentration camp.” When does a society slip from operating a prison to operating a gulag or concentration camp? What is the tipping point? Is it the degradation of societal norms, inequity of wealth distribution, perceived racial threats, poverty or failure of the faith community? What is clear is that the current norms are flawed and we need to work toward a better future.