Welcome to “Lockuptown”
Sometimes we see a ticker tape headline or scan a news article and walk away unchanged. A flicker of recognition, a mental accounting, and then the story recedes in the wake of our daily lives. Once in a while, though, the facts strike a nerve.
That happened to me over the last month. I could have told you before that “our prison system has reached a crisis point,” but I would have been talking in abstractions. Suddenly it feels real to me. Here are the stories that awakened that anger.
The first, Beware of the Dogs, appeared in the New Yorker last month. The article profiles New York’s canine units and examines how they help to keep the city safe from terrorism. For the dogs, it’s hardly a walk in the park; many of the them begin their training with inmates:
The puppies now go to prisons in Florida and Georgia, where they’re trained and cared for by convicts in their cells. The companionship seems to have done the men good: some have been able to reduce their medications, and a few have gone on to become professional trainers. But the effect on the dogs has been even more dramatic. “You have startling noises and startling sights 24/7,” one of the trainers told me. “You have crowds, stairs, slick floors, grated floors. If a dog can get used to those, you know he’s not going to be fearful.” Eighty percent of Auburn’s puppies now go on to become detection dogs.
Shortly after, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s novel, The Fortress of Solitude. I can’t really do the book justice with a single quote, but the bleakness of the final scenes has haunted me. Toward the end, the main characters—childhood friends from 1970s Brooklyn in the throes of gentrification, one white and one black—meet at an upstate prison:
Mingus smoothed his long contrails of mustache, stroked his chin. There were flecks of spittle on his side of the glass between us, evidence of his actor’s enthusiasm, now gone. I met his rheumy eyes and saw a stranger. I could no more ask Mingus who he’d become—whether incarceration had broken him the first time, at eighteen, or what had led him back inside after his first release, or what his life had meant to him in the time between his two sentences—than I could imagine how to confess myself to him. … What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?
Lastly, Adam Gopnik’s January New Yorker article, “Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice in America.” I had seen some of the data points he mentions, but others were new.
More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundament fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
What has come of us? When did we accept the notion of prison as a fully functioning society of its own, as opposed to a “correctional” phase, an interlude? When did we start shrugging our shoulders at the idea of placing puppies in prisons, because we want dogs that have experienced traumatic environments to be the ones protecting us from terrorism?
Cruel and unusual? Judge for yourself. And then speak up.