This last weekend I spent a day and a half in the Muscogee County Jail in Georgia. Soon I will write about the School of the Americas Watch Vigil, its fight and its power. Soon I will write about the fragility of First Amendment rights and how quickly I saw them disappear. But first I want to write about this:
I am out of jail. 2.5 million others in this country tonight are not. Maybe some got canned turkey on their plastic trays today, to celebrate.
Our country has the highest incarceration rate of any country—one in 31 adults—and the highest number of people locked up in cages.
More black men are currently in prison in the U.S. than were slaves in 1850.
7.2 million of us are in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole.
But these were all facts that I already knew.
What I didn’t know is that the vitamin-depleted food tastes and smells like Purina Cat Chow, served with some slimy iceburg lettuce and “milk” with seven ingredients.
I didn’t know about the weight of those slit-windowed rooms, the sense of being buried deep even though we were on the fourth-floor cell block, of being so easy to forget, which is the real horror of a dungeon. I didn’t know “outdoor recreation” meant a rare moment in a high-walled, concrete courtyard.
I didn’t know books would be contraband, a near impossibility. When I saw how much these women loved to read, I told them I’d mail them some books, only to discover that to give these women books I would have to come in person during visiting hours and give one at a time. There is, of course, no library in the jail. The aim of the place is to punish, shame, and deprive.
I didn’t know about Gwen, with the worn face and quiet patience of an Appalachian farmer, who is sitting in a cage because her boyfriend left marijuana at her house.
I didn’t know that 19-year-old Katie has been waiting for a trial date for six months now so the State can figure out if she actually stole that Wii or not. Katie was going to nursing school and caring for her two-year-old daughter when she was arrested, and because her parents now have this little girl to care for they can’t afford bail. It’s like a debtor’s prison: the longer you’re in there, the less likely you’ll be able to afford to get out. Katie, who seems tough, capable, stoic, cries when she speaks of her daughter. She told me she thought she’d be fine when she learned her mother and daughter could visit her twice a week, but she fell apart when she instead was only allowed to speak through a telephone to their images on a television screen. This is the case for all of them in Muscogee County Jail.
In sum, I didn’t know is that “innocent until proven guilty” was such an outrageous lie. If a cop brings you in, you’re guilty. It doesn’t matter what any facts say, you will be punished. If you’re poor, your guilt is heavier, your punishment more severe. For my own convictions for “picketing” and “demonstration without a permit,” I was sentenced to forty days in jail or $300 fines. If I hadn’t had that $300, I would be there until 2011. Forty days or $300—clearly, the punishment for one who can’t pay is far higher. In this reckoning, each day’s worth of freedom, of being with loved ones and feeling the sun and breeze and earth, is worth $7.50.
There is a payment plan for those who can only pay by installments—but I was told this would cost an extra $50 per month, making the option ridiculously cost-prohibitive.
What’s more, I was also charged with “unlawful assembly,” which is a state charge—if I didn’t have $1,300 for bail, I would be in there for weeks or months waiting for that trial.
And waiting for trials is what people in jail do. The women told me they expected to wait four to twelve months before they got a day in court. At that point some of them will be judged to be innocent, but by then they will already have paid heavily for the guilt of poverty.
And so this Thanksgiving I want to send out a call for the old Christian ideal of visiting those in prison, of learning the stories of our society’s most vulnerable. Though the prison figures large in sacred stories from both the Bible and Book of Mormon, we treat wrongful imprisonment as a thing of the past, something we have overcome in our enlightened democracy. We should instead learn that the well-spring of Right Living has always been a kind of steady unruliness, a wilfulness which no Empire can abide.
Also, for Thanksgiving I need to say I’m thankful for the women of the fourth-floor cell block of Muscogee County Jail. For Keisha’s polite explanations of what to do when I came in wide-eyed, dragging my mattress, and for letting me read her Bible and her copy of Twilight all night. For Bama’s kind sass and smile, and for dancing with me in the common area. For Mally and Toi and Miss Margie and Christine and all the others whose names I’ve forgotten because I had no pen and paper to write them down. All of them still laughing easily, still aware of their stories and their dignity after months of being treated with mechanized, organized violence.
A fearful and narrow-eyed State—the same sort of bullies that beheaded the non-conforming John the Baptist—has stripped them of the people and places they love. It acts with brutal efficiency when it comes to capturing them and putting them behind bars, and plods along tortuously when asked to figure out if anyone actually disobeyed its rules. It encourages a culture where being behind bars is taken as proof of shameful behavior: at worst, we condemn them, and at best, we ignore them.
In resistance, the women dance and make a home out of nothing.