Home National From Repression To Barbarization.

From Repression To Barbarization.

Tipping from one to the other.

From the Editorial of the New York Times Board on the California prison system (August 10, 2013): “The state claims that releasing any more inmates would be a threat to public safety, as if the problem were too little prison space. In fact, California’s problem is not excessive crime, but excessive punishment.

I could not agree more.

Is California Texas in denial? Or is it already beyond? California is a place of immense wealth and power. Silicon Valley reigns with its dozens of thousands of software engineers, mostly exploiting fundamental research done elsewhere.

California is also already quite a bit as in the science-fiction movie Elysium. The science may be fiction in Elysium, but the society is not. We are getting there, real quick.

Elysium came out August 9, 2013, and I went to see it. That was the first time I saw a movie on opening day; I was appreciative, although far from amused: the movie criticized what is already going on, medical care for the rich. And what is going to be institutionalized even more with the much vaunted, and grossly misunderstood, Obamacare.

I personally observed two cases of great police violence just in the last 2 months, within a few hundred feet. Perhaps it was justified in the first case (I saw only the final action, with a man in tank top thrown on the ground; there he was on his belly, writhing, handcuffed in the back, police in science-fiction gear all around). But I saw the second, from start to finish, and I know the brutality was completely unjustified.

In the movie Elysium I saw two or three eerily similar scenes.

Police hyper violence is part of a general strategy to terrorize the general population. This is why mass protests in the USA have been rare and far between, ever since 1968. When they happen, protesters die more or less mysteriously, and that’s it. The general population calms down mighty quick and goes back to counting the scores of sport teams, and the lives of celebrities, as they are encouraged to do.

It’s even considered unbecoming a citizen in good standing to mention any systemic trouble in the society at large (one is immediately labelled a “conspiracy theorist”).

That a law such as 3 strikes, & you are out could be passed and hold sway for years tells a lot of the (lack of) civilization in California, just below the silicon. That’s the law that, upon conviction of a third offense, whatever it is, one gets put in prison, forever.   

A place like California should be cracked upon, and for once, the Supreme Court of the USA (SCOTUS) is doing its job: it ordered California to free more inmates from prison.

At its peak in 2006, California had 163,000 inmates in prison. That does not count the inmates in county jails, such as those who spend one year in Los Angeles County jail before seeing a judge. Nor does this number count the thousands of California prisoners sent to other states to serve their sentences (as a “state of emergency” had been proclaimed! Now rescinded.).

By comparison the French Republic, with twice the population of California, holds 63,000 prisoners, total.

At some point someone went to jail for life in California for stealing a pizza slice. In some European countries (among them France) one cannot send people to jail for stealing food.

That’s because legislators there read Victor Hugo “Les Miserables”. The hero in that novel is sent to hard labor for 20 years, because he stole a bread. In California one can be jailed forever for much less. Extends that deterioration in the human condition over another century, and we will be back to the Middle Ages.

Although they were used by the United Kingdom even before the American Revolution, private prisons reappeared in the modern era under Reagan’s influence.

Inconceivably for civilized Europe, the prison system of the USA has been turned into a for-profit business. Shares in prison companies are bought and sold on Wall Street. In the well-chosen year 1984, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded a contract to take over a prison. A whole industry has been created. Already a judge has been sent to prison, for creating clients for his friends in the prison industry. Just three of the prison companies hold more than 200,000 prisoners. Some overseas. “Guanatanamo” is just the name of a syndrome (of loving to put people in prison).

More than 3% of the adult (more than 18) population of the USA is presently emprisoned or under judicial supervision. This is the highest rate in the world. It’s nearly twice Russia, nearly thrice Iran, more than five times China. So why is president Obama criticizing human rights in, say, Russia? Because it’s anti-American not to do so?

The New York Times article was accompanied by all sorts of advertizing for the private industry that gravitates around incarcerating people (“Save 80% on prison calls!”). In many American cities a whole system of making money from money lent to get out of jail exists. (Ah, yes, because if one has enough money, one walks out of jail; probably what the esteemed American “philosopher”, Harvard’s Rawls, called “justice as fairness”.)

The USA had largely ended solitary confinement at the end of the 1800s, when the Supreme Court almost declared it unconstitutional in 1890. However, cruel, long-term solitary confinement has been reintroduced in recent decades.

Winston Churchill said that one can best judge a society by the state of its prisons. In solitary, a prisoner is kept in a small cell for 22-1/2 hours per day without human contact, fresh air, or sunlight. A toilet and sink are in the cell, and food is slipped in through a slot.

“Exercise” consists in wandering in shackles in another solitary cell for an hour.

Nationwide, 81,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement. In California 2% of the prison population is in solitary. In Pelican Bay prison alone, 500 prisoners have spent more than a decade in solitary. 78 have been there for more than 20 years. Long-term solitary confinement ought to drive prisoners insane, and it often does. 42% of California prison system suicides are by inmates in solitary. For those who survive, rehabilitation and successful reentry in society is close to impossible.

This is indeed “America’s Awful Terrible No Good Very Bad Prison System”.

Solitary may be appropriate for limited duration with truly dangerous prisoners. But evidence shows that it is far too often being used to punish, or minor infractions.

Thus we may be already in a worse situation than in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, indefinite detention was viewed as inhuman.

In an inhuman society where revolt is impossible, an answer is. drug addiction. That’s why drug addiction is so developed in California: methamphetamine labs are all over the huge tracks of California without police presence. Those in turn bring a lot of theft. Hence more savage repression. A vicious circle.

Freud famously said that:“Repression is civilization”. Right, in some ways. However, savage repression does not bring civilization, it brings barbarization.

Patrice Ayme


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