The Land of the Fettered

The United States—the world’s supposed beacon of “freedom”—has, by leaps and bounds, the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.

According to a 2006 Justice Department report, 7 million people—or one in every 32 American adults—were in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole. Most other Western industrial nations have incarceration rates around 100 per 100,000 people. China, with a government whose infamous stories of repressiveness has been forced down our throats our entire lives, ranks second in the world, with 1.5 million prisoners—less than one fifth of the U.S., even with almost 4.5 times as many people.

In the words of Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance,

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in locking up our fellow citizens.

Moreover, things are getting worse. Admissions of U.S. inmates have been increasing faster than the release of prisoners. At the end of 2009 there were 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000.
And this is only the beginning. Things get much worse with a look past the surface.

According to a 2008 Bureau of Justice study, there were 3,042 black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 487 white male prisoners per 100,000 white males, and the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 17%, compared to 3% of white males and 8% of Hispanic males.

Furthermore, according to a 2002 Justice Policy Institute study, there are more than three times as many black men in jail or prison than in college. Associate professor of law at Ohio State University and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess, that these are nothing more than a contemporary manifestation, continuation, of Jim Crow laws. And the preponderance of these sentences are because of minor, nonviolent drug charges—”crimes” of which just as many (in fact more) middle-class white people are guilty.

These numerous studies (and countless others) demonstrate not only that we live in an appalling, hyper-active police state, but that, furthermore, an egregious institutional racism is endemic to our justice and political systems.

Now, consider all of the previous information, but in conjunction with the fact that only two states in the United States impose a life-long disenfranchisement upon former felons—on individuals that have already paid for their crimes.

And guess what: Kentucky is one of those two states. (Virginia is the other.)

What this means is not only that the country that purports itself to be “the land of the free” is really “the land of the fettered”; it means further that we live in, democratically-speaking, one of most shackled states of them all.

In a democracy, every adult citizen has the right to participate in her or his political culture. Kentucky obviously does not meet this imperative criterion.

It is for this reason (and many others, of course) that Kentucky, and its politics, should be chastised.

It is for this reason that Kentucky, that is to say, the people of Kentucky—you, me, all of us—must realize, if we wish to take one more step toward democracy, toward a real, inclusive democracy, we must fight to automatically restore the voting rights of former felons.

And it is for all of the previous reasons that the United States, that is to say, the people of the United States—again, you, me, all of us—must realize, if we wish to take one more step toward democracy, toward a real, inclusive democracy, we must fight both to mitigate the out-of-control incarceration rate of our unjust, racist, draconian “Justice” System and to extirpate the socioeconomic and socio-political injustices responsible for the actual crime that does exist.

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Originally published in the Kentucky Kernel on 27 October 2011.