'Toughness' Only Means More Costs, More Bitterness and More Violence

July 23, 1995|By MUMIA ABU-JAMAL

A young man I met in prison, whom I'll call Rabbani, was a tall, zTC husky 15-year-old when he was arrested in southeastern Pennsylvania for armed robbery.

Tried as an adult, Rabbani was convicted on all charges and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison, for an alleged robbery with an air pistol.

His first six or seven years found him constantly locked in battles with guards.

He logged more years in the "hole" than in general population status. He grew into manhood in shackles. Every time I saw him he seemed bigger in size but more bitter in spirit.

When we took the time to converse, I was always struck by the innate brilliance of this young man -- a brilliance immersed in bitterness, a bitterness so acidic that it seemed capable of dissolving steel.

For almost 15 years this brilliance had been caged in steel. For almost two of these years he tried, largely in vain, to get a judge to reconsider his case, but the one-line, two-word denials -- "appeal denied" -- only served to deepen his profound cynicism.

For those critical years in the life of a male, from age 15 to 30, which mark the transition from boy to man, Rabbani was entombed in a juridical, psychic, temporal box branded with the false promise "corrections."

Like tens of thousands of his generation, his time in hell equipped him with no skills of value to either himself or his community.

He has been corrected in precisely the same way that hundreds of thousands of others have been -- that is, warehoused in a vat that sears the very soul.

When I hear easy, catchy, mindless slogans like "three strikes, you're out," I think of men like Rabbani who had one strike. . . . Yet what most politicians know is what most people do not -- that "three strikes, you're out" will do next to nothing to eradicate crime, and will not create the dream of public safety.

They also know it will be years before the bills come due, and when they do, they'll be real doozies. By then, they'll be out of office and it'll be another politician's problem.

That's because the actual impact of "three strikes" will not be felt for at least 10 to 20 years, simply because that's the range of sentence someone arrested today faces already under the current laws.

Already some 34 states have habitual offender -- so-called career criminal -- laws, which call for additional penalties on the second, not the third, felony, in addition to those for the actual crime.

As with every law, taxpayers will have to "pay the cost to be the boss."

As prisons become increasingly geriatric, with populations hitting their 50s and 60s, those already stratospheric costs will balloon exponentially for expected health costs, so that although many Americans -- an estimated 37 million -- don't have guaranteed health care, prisoners will, although of doubtful quality.

Of late there is a quickening on the nation's death rows.

As murder rates rise in American cities, so too does the tide of fear. Politicians and judges ride that tide that washes toward the door of the execution chamber.

No matter that of the 10 states with the highest murder rate, eight lead the country in executions that supposedly deter. No matter that of the 10 states with the lowest murder rate, only one, Utah, has executed anyone since 1976.

States that have not slain prisoners in a generation now ready their machinery. Generators whine, poison liquids are mixed, gases are readied and measured. Silent chambers await the order to smother life. More and more American states now rush to join the pack.

By now, the so-called crime bill -- that profane political expletive -- is the law.

Packing some 60-odd death penalties, a "three strikes, you're out" provision and billions of bucks for cops and prisons, the crime bill, as proposed by President Clinton, was an act so draconian that neither Presidents Bush nor Reagan could have successfully passed such a measure.

It is amazing to see politicians sell "We gotta get tough on crime" to a country that's already the world's leading incarcerator -- and perhaps more amazing to see the country buy it.

A more cynical soul, viewing this prison-boom bill through the lens of economic interest, might suppose that elements of the correctional industry, builders, guards' unions and the like are fueling the boom, at least in part.

As we enter the post-industrial age, Japan produces the world's computer chips, Germany produces high-performance autos and America produces . . . prisons.

Prisons are where America's job programs, housing programs and social-control programs merge into a dark whole.

The ideologically driven drivel that is the crime bill, this dark political ticket for re-election, will hurt Americans for generations to come.

It will drive public bankruptcy. It will fuel greater violence. It will create prisoners who are dumber, more alienated, but more desperate in life's scuffle for survival.

Consider this: The drugged-out zombie about to rob you calculates the worth of stealing your property vs. four to eight years in prison, if caught. Factor in your property vs. life without parole, and your life, not your property, is devalued.

That fatal calculation is being tallied hourly in cities from coast to coast, and the so-called crime bill now makes it more costly -- for you.

This article is adapted from Mumia Abu-Jamal's book, "Live from Death Row."

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