Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration
SHAHID READS HIS OWN PALM
by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Alice James Books, 2010
Richard Nixon campaigned for the U.S. presidency on a platform of strident anti-Communism and renewed law and order. In the wake of devastating urban riots all across the nation, cresting anti-war activism, a vibrant counter-cultural network of poets and musicians and other provocateurs, and the dual successes of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, Nixon and his crowd had had enough. And so, to reclaim the nation from those they saw as tradition-trashing hooligans, they filled the nation’s airwaves with “war on crime” rhetoric, influenced national and state budgets to reflect Nixon’s priorities, and urged legislatures around the nation to extend sentences and build new prisons. Before long, the children of Martin Luther King Jr.’s America would be described by conservative leaders not as the nation’s redeemers—as its brave inventors of a new democracy shorn of centuries of racism, patriarchy, and war-mongering—but as its depraved destroyers.
Media corporations then realized that producing terrible tales of violence and mayhem fueled profits, and so the nation was blanketed with a stunning array of cops-’n’-robbers TV dramas, spectacular nightly news footage, and “thug life” consumer items of every variety. As media critic Bill Yousman notes, the nation’s media consumers fell hard and fast into a love affair with a peculiarly American version of “happy violence,” which left them repulsed, titillated, and ever more susceptible to the worst forms of fear-mongering about crime waves and drug wars. And so, between Nixon’s victory in 1968 and Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the nation’s prison population skyrocketed to over 2.3 million; more than 5 million additional former prisoners languish on parole, probation, or house arrest, making the United States’ carceral apparatus the largest in the world.
Not counting policing and judicial expenditures, and not counting the more than $40 billion the federal government spends each year on its disastrous drug war, funding this incarceration system costs state governments roughly $68 billion per year. To cover these costs, states all across the nation are cutting funding for education while boosting funding for prisons. In the 2012-2013 budget year, for example, California is scheduled to spend $15.4 billion on its prisons, more than the $15.3 billion it will spend for its once-vaunted and now crumbling post-secondary education system. No wonder that prison activist Ruthie Gilmore has taken to calling California a “golden gulag.” ...
Hartnett, Stephen John. 2012. Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Tikkun 27(1): 55.