Noah Brier | April 1, 2019

Why is this interesting? - Monday, April 1

On prison, crime, and society

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Warning: Today’s top section isn’t a lot of fun. It’s about prisons and how awful they are and includes a bit of graphic language from a New York Times story. I thought about moving it to not Monday, but as this is an email featuring interesting things we are reading at the moment, I thought it was best to keep it for this morning. - Noah (NRB)

A few weeks ago the New York Times received thousands of photos they believe were taken  inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. The photos detailed the sort of horrific events we frequently see dramatized in TV shows and movies, with homemade knives, dead bodies, and lots of blood: “In puddles. In toilets. Scrawled on the wall in desperate messages. Bloody scalps, bloody footprints, blood streaming down a cheek like tears.” Ultimately the Times decided they couldn’t run the images both for reasons of prisoner privacy and lack of context (they can’t completely confirm the prison they were taken), but they could, and should, describe what they saw.

Why is this interesting?

“Prisons,” as Times criminal justice editor Shaila Dewan writes “are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside.”

I am far from deeply knowledgeable about the topic, but it’s been on my mind since reading a 2012 n+1 piece by Christopher Glazek titled Raise the Crime Rate. That article is almost definitely the most affecting I’ve read in the last ten years. The argument, essentially, is that the way we’ve lowered crime in America is to legalize it in prison.

“America’s prison system is a moral catastrophe. The eerie sense of security that prevails on the streets of lower Manhattan obscures, and depends upon, a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history. Dismantling the system of American gulags, and holding accountable those responsible for their operation, presents the most urgent humanitarian imperative of our time.”

All of it harkens back to science fiction writer Ursula le Guin’s short story The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. In it she asks what price we’re willing to pay for happiness.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

That’s from 1973. Things have only gotten worse. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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