The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the US Prison Industry

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9781567511406: The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the US Prison Industry

Book by Burton-Rose, Daniel, Wright, Paul

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In The Celling of America, inmates in American penitentiaries report on their living conditions and political concerns. They paint a bleak picture of the prison system, describing police brutality, substandard medical care, racism, and extremely crowded conditions. They discuss privately-run prisons, prison labor, weightlifting, and the effect of television on prisoner's lives. Many of them believe conditions are getting worse every year, and their claims are quite credible because no one knows jail like a convict. Most of these articles originally appeared in Prison Legal News, a magazine published by Dan Pens and Paul Wright, two incarcerated men in Washington state.

The authors explain that reporters often rely on prison officials as the primary source for information on these issues, which leads them to present a biased view of prison life. State prisons limit and sometimes block prisoners' access to media, making it difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners to tell their side of the story. Inmates are easy targets for politicians because they aren't allowed to vote and can't talk back.

These essays compel readers to reevaluate their ideas about the average prison inmate, to think more carefully about that man lounging in his cell watching television. It was interesting to learn that while some states provide each prisoner with a television on the theory that television pacifies people, other prison systems forbid televisions because some believe watching television is a luxury that inmates don't deserve. The book would have been better if it had told more about the people who wrote the essays. I kept wondering what each writer did to end up in the slammer, and that information seems significant. Do you trust a thief to tell you about multinational corporations profiting from cheap prison labor? Do you trust a sex offender? Who do you believe? That is one of the central questions posed by this collection. --Jill Marquis

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: William Greider
The bookshelves are abundantly stocked with scholarly studies of the United States' criminal justice system, but there are few, if any, like the book you are about to read. It was mainly written by criminals. Two of the co-editors (Dan Pens and Paul Wright) are in prison for felonious crimes and so are most of the contributing authors. Robbery, murder, sex offenses, violent political attacks and other offenses. In the mainstream currents of American politics, this automatically disqualifies them as commentators. In the real world, their essays are sharply informative because they are grounded in reality, the clarifying experience of dwelling within the penal system. We should listen to them. We will learn from what they see and know. We may begin to think more clearly about all that must be changed.

The burden of their message is that the United States has descended into a cruel era of social vengeance, as though the problems of crime and social deterioration will be solved by ratcheting up the level of torment imposed on the imprisoned and by elaborating even more irrational terms for deciding on their punishment. The nation builds prisons instead of schools. A new industrial sector has arisen around the penal system. Companies move in to capture the profit opportunities present in this new commodity-the millions of people who are imprisoned.

This approach may temporarily mollify public fears of crime and satisfy desires for retribution, but it does not of course solve the crime problem. Indeed, the political crusade to "toughen up" the criminal justice system may be understood as a great evasion-a retreat from the deeper and more difficult questions of social and economic relationships. In a sense, the binge of prison construction amounts to giving up on the possibility of building a more equitable society.

Another consequence that law-and-order advocates do not yet grasp is that they have also retreated from the idea of equality before the law. This book contains numerous shocking examples. The corruption of law is promoting a kind of hopeless cynicism among many citizens who lack the means to defend themselves with expensive lawyers or other perfectly legal methods for manipulating the system. In the long run, I think this corrupting impact on the public values of fairness and decency will prove even worse for America than the damage done to individuals.

One remarkable quality of this book is that, while the collective indictment delivered by these inmate commentators is harsh and devastating, their tone and style is relatively restrained. One would expect otherwise, I think, especially given the facts they are presenting and their own confinement. Yet, for the most part, this is a work of observing and reporting with clear-eyed analysis. There are occasional bursts of heartfelt pain and rebellion, but generally the writers seem to have concluded that the facts themselves are strong enough.

Anyway, if one can read these accounts without becoming deeply troubled about the state of the criminal justice system, then no amount of personal exhortation would likely persuade. I take the dispassionate tone of these prisoners as a kind of implicit compliment to the rest of us, the readers on the outside. It seems to assume-generously-that there are still many Americans who are prepared to listen to facts and to respond to the indictment. I think these authors are right about that. Cynics would say they are hopelessly naive.

The understated tone is consistent with the source of the material. These chapters are collected from a unique publication, Prison Legal News, edited by Paul Wright and Dan Pens, both of whom are prisoners in the Washington state prison system. Founded in 1990, PLN has managed to connect up with a wide network of correspondents in state and federal prisons. Some simply report the news from their corners of the penal system. Others offer deeper analysis of the prison industry as a business sector or detail the latest outrageous abuses from within.

As a regular reader of PLN I am struck by the fact that every issue delivers real news, informs me of something I missed in the regular press or, more likely, something that was ignored by other media. When you think about the mass of information that inundates us from so many sources, it is amazing that a small, under-financed publication written and produced by prisoners can still regularly scoop the big media.

These voices, though despised and ignored, deserve to be heard in the larger political debate. One will not agree with every observation and conclusion, but this book delivers a strong sense of what is being left out. Indeed, I think it is probably true that Americans will not begin to restore humane values to their criminal justice system until they grasp that they must listen to these voices too.

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