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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Incarcerating the Wrong People (p. 261)

From chapter "Criminals"

Although I don’t ask what my students are in for, I know from stories they’ve written and stories they’ve told me that I’ve worked with drug smugglers, and I’ve worked with murderers. I’ve worked with pimps. I’ve worked with rapists. I’ve worked with armed robbers, and I’ve worked with burglars. I’ve worked with Meth cooks with rotting teeth, and one fellow whose face was taken off in a meth lab explosion. One former student had been shot during a drug deal at a party; he grabbed the gun, pistol-whipped the man who shot him, put the barrel in the man’s mouth, then counted the people in the room: six people, five bullets. He took the gun out of the man’s mouth and said, “You’re lucky this time.” When he told me that story, I looked at him quizzically, and he said, simply, “Never leave a witness.” One student put a screwdriver in his friend’s neck because his gang demanded it of him. Another killed a couple of people in a drug deal gone bad.

Many of these people have obviously committed horrible crimes. Many of them I would not want as neighbors. The media call the inmates at this prison “the worst of the worst,” and some of them have been to places and done things and hurt people in ways that are as unimaginable to me as are the conditions in their cells.

That’s one way to look at them, and it’s an important way to look at them. Another is to look at their faces, to enter into particular relationships with these particular men who have these particular backgrounds and have committed these particular crimes, for which they are paying their own particular prices: J.T., a white guy, a longtime junkie who’s read more literature than I have. He said, “I tell my friends not to cry for me in here. At least I can get up in the morning. That’s more than I can say for the person I murdered.” I think about the pride on Charlie’s face when he writes about volunteering to fight in Vietnam, and the eagerness that still rushes over him when he describes the drugs he got hooked on over there. He doesn’t write much about his life after he got back. Then there’s Hollins, the only man I’ve ever known who’s actually read Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. His face betrayed no emotion when he wrote of watching his mother shoot his abusive father in the chest with a shotgun, or when he wrote about them living together afterward. He seemed more befuddled than anything when he wrote about the time he has spent inside institutions since he was eight. I just learned that another of my students—a young man now spending the rest of his life in prison— began living on the streets when he was six, sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating from Dumpsters. Or another student, since released, about twenty-two, who also had been inside since he was eight. He said to me, “I don’t know how I’m going to survive out there. I don’t know how to relate to people. I don’t know anything but rage and fear.” And, I thought, loneliness.

None of this excuses what they’ve done. Nothing does. But there are several reasons I write more about the hate that manifests through our economy, government, and larger social systems than I do about the hate that manifests in the often vile acts that have been committed by prisoners or by others like them.

The first is that I can find no compelling reason to add my voice to the din condemning these men or their actions. Movies, television, magazines, newspapers, tinpot politicians left and right all make a buck off of demonizing these guys. The last time I checked, so-called nasty-ass motherfuckers already had a pretty bad reputation, with public relations currency running right around nil. And cop shows? You’ll see a rogue cop once in a while, but always with the caveat that rogues are one in a hundred. Rarely do we see explorations of the systematic use of police and prisons to maintain the current social order.

And no matter how dangerous people in prison may seem, especially to those whose exposure to them has been primarily through COPS, Dragnet, Key Largo, ConAir, and Natural Born Killers, if we want to talk about real danger, we’re talking about entirely the wrong group of people. The 1999 Uniform Crime Report put out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveals that there were 16,910 murders committed in the United States in 1998. Yet more people than that in the United States die every two weeks from cancer, which kills 450,000 Americans every year. Your odds of dying of cancer are roughly twenty-five times higher than your chances of getting murdered. But that’s just life, right? Well, not exactly. Cancer rates are going up, even after adjusting for an aging population and for smoking (and let’s not even talk about those nasty-ass motherfuckers in the tobacco industry). In other words, even nonsmokers are far more likely to get cancer now than one hundred years ago. Why? I asked Samuel Epstein, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the carcinogenic effects of industrial pollutants in air, water, the workplace, and consumer products, and he said, “I think the answer is terribly simple. Parallel to the escalating incidence of cancer, there has been an explosive expansion of technologies—particularly in the petrochemical industry, which really took off in the early forties. Between 1940 and 1990, the total annual production of synthetic organic chemicals increased from one billion to more than six hundred billion pounds. Over the last few decades, our total environment has be come pervasively contaminated with a wide range of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, some of which are persistent—that is, long-lived. When I say ‘total environment,’ I mean our air, water, soil, consumer products, food, and workplace. Even our own body fats have become contaminated. This is true from the North Pole to the South, not only for humans but for a wide range of marine life and wildlife, as well.” Of those 450,000 cancer deaths per year, Epstein says that far more than three hundred thousand are preventable. Asbestos, which has been known as a carcinogen at least since the 1920s, kills fifty thousand Americans per year, nearly three times as many as are murdered by those we call murderers.

We might be incarcerating the wrong people. Epstein has called for public health crimes trials, and testified before Congress that if for economic gain CEOs put in place practices that damage public health—in other words, that kill or injure innocent people—we should lock them up and throw away the keys.