What should we take out of the Georgia prison strikes?
It certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise that the American prison system incarcerates far too many people, many of them nonviolent offenders, and often for petty and victimless crimes. What ought not to come as a surprise, although it certainly would be for many were it not for the virtual media blackout on the strikes so far, is that American offenders are not treated terribly well. What left me pleasantly surprised was that not only were the maltreated prisoners able to coordinate an effective strike at a single location, but that they pulled it off across an entire state.
There’s already been good news. Change.org reports that some prisoners are already experiencing better treatment in the wake of the strike – although inmates are still a long way from their requests for a living wage, health care, basic human rights and educational opportunities.
The media, as SouthernStudies.ort points out, has more or less ignored the stike, which may be the largest in American history. The lack of national attention is a feature of the ongoing strike which raises the specter of the Attica prison standoff back in 1971.
There’s an episode of 30 Days in which Morgan Spurlock (the Supersize Me guy) spends some time in prison. Of course the camera crew is bound to change the social dynamics (nevermind to put the guards on their best behavior) but the episode does seem to capture the inane waiting game of the modern prison sentence, complete with poor nutrition and petty drug offenders. Clearly, that’s not a reality that the American public is comfortable with.
It’s almost a painfully dull question, but what is the justice system actually trying to accomplish with prisons? If it’s rehabilitation, then the striking prisoners are clearly making some good points. The troubling thing is that there is a dominant viewpoint at work that incarceration oughtn’t to be about rehabilitation at all – that it should be about punishment. That’s the discourse of justice from which we get prisons run by private corporations, guards beating up prisoners who can’t get access to their medications, and prisoners who don’t see their families and aren’t being taught real-world skills.
That’s not an America that I can be proud of.