The Sad and Sorry State of Justice in America

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Previously posted elsewhere.

It’s been pointed out to me that I haven’t written a diary in a long while advocating for reform of the criminal justice system. The reasons for that are many. I don’t believe we will see meaningful reform of prisons or the Criminal Justice system until we first reform government and society. If our politicians are overwhelmingly corrupt, and they are, and if you can’t get people to care about bombing innocent people for no good reason or torturing people who may or may not have done anything wrong, and apparently you can’t, what are the chances of getting them to care about the systematic mistreatment of ‘criminals’? I have considerable experience in this matter and I can tell you the chances are slim. I guess I am guilty of feeling a certain amount of despair over the issue. Nevertheless, it is worth a try, and it is fair to say that I am remiss in not having done more to advocate for reform of what is a horrendously screwed up system.


Having served hard time in the Alabama prison system, I have experienced all phases of our Criminal Justice system including numerous arrests, jail, trials, convictions, imprisonment, parole and prison reform advocacy. The details can be found here: This is my story – I hope that it finds you

Racism is a prominent feature of the Criminal Justice system. Study after study has shown that people of color are much more likely to be a) arrested, b) convicted and c) imprisoned for a crime – not to mention d) executed. Beyond racism there is classism. People are generally just as uncaring, apathetic or hostile toward white prisoners/criminals/non-persons as they are about prisoners/criminals/non-persons of color. Poverty is the one thing most prisoners have in common. There are very few rich people in prison. It’s not because rich people don’t commit crimes, it’s because money will get you out of most of the kinds of trouble people get into. There are exceptions of course, but not many. You could also read up on recent law review articles here to get a clear understanding of the issues we face every day.

There are several nuggets of conventional wisdom about our system that are dead wrong. One is that while our system of justice may not be perfect, it is the best such system in the world. Our system cannot possibly be the best in the world, but even if it is, it is cold comfort that such horror is the best we can do.

Another nugget is that a jury of twelve peers renders perfect or near perfect justice. First of all, few people are tried by a jury of their peers in any but the most technical sense. There were no hippies on my jury, plenty of black people have been convicted or condemned by twelve white people, etc. Think for a moment about the society we live in and consider having your fate put into the hands of twelve randomly selected members thereof. Most convicts or criminal defense attorneys will tell you it is one hell of a crapshoot and quite often a real nightmare. This emphasises why many people going through criminal charges seek out a competent criminal lawyer.

The bottom line is that our Criminal Justice system is deeply flawed, from how people are arrested to how they are jailed, tried, defended, convicted and punished. The system is discriminatory, inhumane, and dysfunctional at every level. It fails in the simple administration of justice, it fails at the rehabilitation of offenders and it fails at its primary function – that of protecting society.

Yes, the protection of society is the fundamental rationale for the existence of the Criminal Justice system. So the extent that it does or does not achieve that primary goal is the measure of its value to society.

When I worked as the director of the Alabama Prison Project in Montgomery, Alabama following my own release from prison, I used to go around the state giving speeches urging people to care about our system enough to undertake serious reforms. My message was rarely well received. All too often people equate prison reform with ‘coddling criminals’, and few notions provoke hostility in those who’ve never been imprisoned more than the thought that those who are will be insufficiently punished. Ours is a highly vindictive and punitive society. It’s true in Alabama and it’s true elsewhere, though it varies somewhat from place to place I’m sure. Nevertheless, in most places in America, the outcome of a prisoner’s treatment is regarded as less important than the severity of it.

Perhaps my mistake was trying to get people in the Bible belt to care about the least of these their brethren. Go figure.

The problem with this harshly punitive approach to criminal justice, aside from its essential inhumanity, is that it defeats the purpose of the system, which is to protect society.

Harsh Punishment Backfires: Psychologists Offer Ways To Improve Prison Environment, Reduce Violent Crime

ScienceDaily (Aug. 12, 2009) – U.S. prisons are too punitive and often fail to rehabilitate, but targeting prisoners’ behavior, reducing prison populations and offering job skills could reduce prisoner aggression and prevent recidivism, a researcher told the American Psychological Association.

“The current design of prison systems don’t work,” said criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin, PhD, of the University of Arizona. “Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence.”

Science Daily

Most of society’s worst criminals are people who have been themselves horribly abused, either in childhood or at some other point in their lives, quite often at the hands of the Criminal Justice system itself.

When I went to prison I was a na├»ve 19 year-old happy go lucky hippie who knew nothing of the criminal underworld, hardcore poverty, violence or the gritty struggle to survive that is routine in our nation’s prisons. I had to learn quickly.

One thing I learned is that the most dangerous convicts tended to be those who had been caught up in the system the longest. There was a class of prisoners referred to as ‘state-raised convicts’. Charles Manson was one of these guys, and a fine example (IMO) of the harm that can be done by such a system. These were people who entered the system at an early age, usually as minors and who graduated, so to speak, from reform school to youth center to adult prison suffering huge quantities of the unique abuses so abundantly available at each stage. This passage tends to make people mean, violent and sneaky – the one’s who survive anyway. I learned to tip toe around these dudes and avoid them when possible…but I never stopped feeling sorry for them (though I had to be careful not to let on). It’s no way to live one’s life.

Prison changes people and generally not for the better, though that depends to some extent on the individual. People can and do overcome the corrosive influence of our merciless Criminal Justice system. I would count Meteor Blades and myself among that group – and I say that with the utmost respect for Meteor Blades. People do overcome these horrendous circumstances, but they shouldn’t have to. It does society no good to stack the deck against its members who most need help. It is self-destructive to deny them assistance, a form of national cultural suicide.

Perverse prison conditions become a problem for the larger society when the people subjected to them are released and reenter the free world. At that point the former prisoner is a product of his/her prison experience. Either he has been made better (rarely) or he has been made worse (most often). If he or she has seen significant amounts of hard time (time in a hard core maximum security prison) they have most likely been made dangerous, much more dangerous than they may or may not have been to begin with. So tell me, how exactly does society profit from this?

There is a revolving-door syndrome that all penologists, criminologists and convicts are aware of – offend, imprisonment, release, re-offend. And all too often each new offense is worse than the last. The return to prison is termed recidivism and the rate of it is staggering, hovering around 60 – 70%. Prison conditions are such that they tend to make people subjected to them unsuitable for life on the outside. Failure is all but guaranteed.

Our system doesn’t address the problem of crime – it aggravates it. Our prisons are factories that produce hard-core criminals with frightening efficiency. It’s crazy, it’s cruel and it’s self-destructive.

So my argument for Criminal Justice/prison reform has always been – if you can’t be bothered to care about the least of these our brethren, if compassion, kindness and mercy mean nothing to you, if actual justice does not matter, at least try to understand that reform is imperative, if for no other reason than society’s own self-defense. It is madness to keep doing this to ourselves.



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    • OPOL on October 12, 2009 at 03:34

    • Edger on October 12, 2009 at 03:55

    Factories are intentionally places of production in a capitalist system.



    Great essay, OPOL. Good to see you back here.

  1. do more harm than good.  I’m all for justice, but this system causes just as much injustice.  

  2. And thanks for tackling this WAY under covered issue

  3. Dad is 86.  He has alzheimers.  Ma is 80 and she is caring for him.  Ma is a sociopathic personality and that manifested itself under the stress of caring for Dad.  During my interventions on behalf of my father I went to answer the charge of elder abuse because I was after Ma’s money.  Now Ma dumped Dad in a nursing home and it was me who collected his $27,000 dollar limit Visa card from the totally unsecured transfer from the hospital to the nursing home.  Ma decided she was “too frail” to drive anymore and then embarked upon a month long take ME to the doctor help me whine.

    My cumulative experience in all this is that the legal and medical establishment in this country is designed to be against people and families in general in addition to the vastly increasing prison industrial complex that is defintiely on the rise.

  4. hope to see you around from time to time…

    • Alma on October 12, 2009 at 05:08

    I think we need to work on it all at the same time. Government, society, immigration, prison system, you name it, we need to work on it.

  5. diary “elsewhere” and really loved it.  I couldn’t agree with you more.  In more ways than one we are such a backward nation.  Thank you for addressing this underreported situation.  Beautifully written and reported.

    • banger on October 12, 2009 at 05:19

    is it justice or “just us”?

    The justice system is monsterous like all the other major cultural institutions in this country. It was always fairly bad but now it is a horror. The main thing the system wants is to disrespect us and make sure that we know we are subject to rules — often catch-22 rules. There is a strong need of individuals and groups to step on other people who are different, more expressive and graceful, more imaginative, weaker, confused, hurt or sick and so on. Many people in prison are beautiful beings who often internalize the hate that circled their lives and the circumstances they faced — the beatings, the rapes, the sadness of being on the bottom of someone’s shoe. The confusion of school that labels us with such vehemence and obvious enjoyment — aha, we have classified another insect, etc., etc. Actually if there is a bigger culprit than the justice system it is our school systems and the bureaucratic and the bizarre values they impart to youth both rich and poor.

    I love the islands of dignity that exist that are created by marvelous human beings who work against the system with every breath they take. It is those islands that will become a land mass someday. “I have been to the mountaintop….”

    • RUKind on October 12, 2009 at 07:49

    If you’re not old enough to remember who said that then google it.

    Nothing changes except you. Make that change just a little bit louder!

    • dkmich on October 12, 2009 at 11:38

    Hope life is looking up for you.    

    • RiaD on October 12, 2009 at 14:26


  6. Justice is now doled out through corporate boardrooms and the Federal Reserve. It’s all about the greenbacks. The coup is just about completed now. It wasn’t a military coup nor political, it was a corporate coup and it is global. The military and politicians are just tangential wings of the global monster. They don’t even try to hide it anymore.

  7. on privatization any more as the private now owns the government. So upside down. Mercenary killers embedded in the justice and ‘security’ industries. When the likes of Blackwater or any of these goons are in charge of our security and are enforcers for real criminals, humans become nothing but fodder for the profits made from misery. Poverty is a crime in this culture, and profit is made by the same people that rain terror in endless war. The real criminals just rake in the money, and call this law and order or security.

    Criminal justice and prison reform, is not separate from the cruelty and inhumanity we inflict on everyone everywhere who isn’t able to pay the vig, be it a lawyer to buy you ‘justice’ or a doctor to heal your body. We call these real criminals protectors, and we wage war on things rather then dealing with the people who don’t have the means to pay, war on crime war on drugs war on terror, what ever happened to the war on poverty? No justice can ever come from a system that places profit, power and private over common good. I hope your life and writing are doing  well. Thanks for all you do.              


    Seig Heil Nazi-merica.

  9. good to see you again, man!

    I think I commented about this before — possibly in one of your essays — but when I lived in NYC, the NYT ran a story about rehabilitation efforts in state prisons.

    Some prisoners were taught to become barbers.  Harmless, right?  NOT.  Turns out NYS has a law preventing certain offenders from becoming barbers.

    IOW, while being rehabilitated in prison, you learn a potentially lucrative trade, barbering, and then you get out and discover — ta da — that you can’t get licensed b/c of moral turpitude or something…I forget exactly what the state’s rationale was, but it was incredibly stupid.

  10. Any campaign which wishes to get started with a dramatic, total reform of the justice system would start with official statistics on recidivism.

    • Miep on October 13, 2009 at 08:38

    hello and thank you.

    You further inspire me to follow up on prison abuses.

  11. The people who know the most about the inside of this system, the prisoners and those who have tried to represent them, are never listened to.  After all, they’re felons, or they help dangerous people stay on the streets or get to them.  There are no alumni associations who make donations. There are no PACs who run commercials and lobby. And it’s hard to find politicians who don’t reflexively advocate longer, harsher sentences for every crime.

    You’d think that I’d be depressed by this and would by now have given up trying to make a change in this system, but I haven’t.  I know there are enough termites eating this system that if we can keep putting pressure on it, it will eventually collapse. I just hope I live long enough to see that. It’s a very, very glacial process.

    Thanks for writing, OPOL.

  12. A pleasure to see you here again even if the subject matter is depressing as can be, along with everything else in this country and, all and wherever our hands are put in this world.

    With so many prisons privatized now and the corporations controlling them making so much per head, how can we get anything corrected?  You may recall I posted this here on Cheney (being sued) and his Vanguard Group some time back.

    Mistreatment of prisoners has been going on for a long time and as the morals of this country decline, the mistreatment worsens. The worst part of it is that even if a person with a minor infraction returns to society, society shuns that individual by making it next to impossible to obtain a job, enter into social circles, etc., so that too often, the individual winds up back in prison.  

    And, of course, as with everything in this country, it is all a matter of money.  Justice is as good as your money.  Nobody gives a GD how you make the money, so long as you have it.  The disparity in every aspect of our society, wage disparity, color disparity, etc., etc., will be the ruination of our society, such as it is, IMHO!

  13. ponder this, deeply.

    My favorite group in this arena, YMMV, is The Human Kindness Foundation.

    They started with their “Prison Ashram” project.

    “The cause of all our personal problems and nearly all the problems of the world can be summed up in a single sentence:

    Human life is very deep, and our modern dominant lifestyle is not.”

    -Bo Lozoff

    They’ve been around for decades. I donated to them monthly when they were new. I had a good salary, wanted part of it to Do Good. These guys were on my list. I hope that I helped them get started, establish a track record, so that others could move in and take over the support of them.

    They are a tremendous resource in this arena, helping hundreds, minimum, of prisoners and prisoner families, yearly.

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