LEVIATHAN – Giving Name to the Prison Industrial Complex

By Abdul-Jalil Rashid Al-Imarah (S. Baptiste)

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“The American Prison System has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history. The financial costs entailed are staggering, and extent of human suffering endured boggles the mind.” [1]

We live in a complicated world. We are bombarded with questions as well as skepticism regarding our various stances on multiple issues. The world today as we know it is tremendously different than yesterday. It is the age of global activism and advocacy. Where international crisis constantly buzz across our news feed. Atrocities, mayhem, and scandals. A time of global unrest sparked by economic inequality, lack of social justice, climate change, imperial military interventions under the guise of humanitarian intent, terrorism, and civil wars. The new issues we are forced to address by way of them becoming prominent in the media such as #MeToo movement, LGBQT, immigration, genocide, Islamophobia and everything else in the motley menagerie of issues that the talking heads of punditry and demagoguery tells us are important, have multiplied.

Well I’m going to tackle two issues that are significant yet overlooked: Mass incarceration and immigration, sometimes focusing on one more than the other. Mass incarceration has a great and radical impact upon the immigration experience. In a way it even defines and shapes the narrative of such. Especially in a time when the head of the US executive branch is publicly branding the majority of immigrants from Latin American countries as ‘rapists, crooks, thieves, gang members, and murderers,’ and increasing the number of deportations, restrictions on visa criteria, and banning many Africans, Arabs, and South East Asians from Muslim majority nations from entering the US, it becomes of greater importance.

From those detained at the border, sweeps conducted by ICE, all the way to those facing deportation following their arrest, its impact is felt in many ways. The shambles and disarray which we call the ‘American Justice System’ continues to baffle people around the world.[2] Mass incarceration is a monster. A beast. It is more than a system or network of interconnecting policies and agencies. To avoid being overbroad and too general as well as not being too specific enough, we will personify ‘Mass Incarceration’ as simply one entity that we shall term ‘Leviathan’.

 How pervasive is all of this and how far do its tentacles reach? We shall start off by way of introduction to this matter by quoting one reform advocate, “The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison populations. Congress creates 50 crimes every year. That’s 500 things that were legal a decade ago that are now felonies. It’s no wonder the prisons are full.” [3]

People hailing from countries with progressive policies governing their criminal justice system such as Sweden, Norway, the U.K, Germany and others are appalled by the length and conditions of sentences that prisoners in America are subjected to. [4] Even countries from the so-called third world scratch their heads at things which the US government criminalizes. As one reform advocate noted ‘… The rest of the world looks at us and shakes its collective head, especially our European allies.” [5] 

Many people have begun to grow vocal about prison reform and the plight of prisoners. This is from judges, lawyers, social scientists, legislators, law students, civil liberty groups, all the way up to the president. So, what equips me or makes me fit to discuss this complex and great issue? Firsthand experience. As a first-generation child of immigrants from Haiti, an Islamist activist, political prisoner, a victim and one of the living casualty of Leviathan. Though I am relying on basically the same data used and available to others who speak on this matter, I am bringing to the equation and table a fact which sets me apart; the passion and zeal that only a prisoner can bring.

Crime is basically a violation of enacted laws. Yet manmade laws are fluid and so they constantly change. [6] Laws are what make criminals; the criminalization of acts or activities thus becomes the origin of all criminals. This may seem like circular logic but bear with me and keep reading to see the basis for this claim and others. An example of this is how the FDA treats some controlled substances. Some medicines used in other countries are banned and considered harmful and illegal as controlled substances.[7] Criminal cases stemming from this are not uncommon. Things like counter the narrative of the ‘American Dream’. 

People come to this country for opportunities, yet they have no idea that the monster Leviathan exists until confronted. Individuals are deported for mere traffic violations. Since police are the enforcers of law and have arrest powers, whenever they act within their wide latitude of their discretion into what we know as racial profiling, this has a negative impact on those minority immigrant populations. When a wave of unrest is fomented by arcane laws and incomprehensible legal technicalities you will have law abiding aliens panic about the possibility of their status being revoked or being caught up in a sweep. Many immigrants know of a person who has been deported or ordered removed. Or they have heard of a family or individual within their own ethnic group who have been affected by such.[8]

ICE agents are conducting sweeps and raids like Nazi Germany or Soviet Gestapo’s herding off people to concentration camps. And we shouldn’t be naive and think that that there are not similarities between then and now regardless of the obvious difference in the age we live in from those previous time periods. We’ve learned nothing at all from the war detention of Japanese Americans. During World War II Asians in general and specifically Japanese who were living their lives as law abiding citizens were rounded up and taken to internment camps. Executive order no. 9066 gave the authority that was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court that ‘Japs’ couldn’t be trusted and had to be ‘dealt with’ [9- German/media]

That is an irremovable stain from US history. Since that particular episode, the US government has classified and further detained more American citizens as ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba via its executive branch. In illegal maneuvering, it has conducted extra judicial killings of American citizens overseas by way of armed militarized drones in the way and manner dealt to American citizen and popular Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen and countless other Americans in Syria. The psyche of the nation or at least the mentality of its leaders and policy makers has not shifted nor pivoted away from such.

For following the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Japanese Americans were locked up without due process. In the same, more than half a century later Arab Americans, Middle Easterners, Muslims, and Southeast Asians were rounded up after September 11th (9/11). [10] A country that prides itself on being open and free has twice initiated Nazi Gestapo tactics as if it were dispatching SS squads to round up those whom it finds disagreeable in an ideological and racist manner.

“…there are millions of lives being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process”- Obama [11]

“We already know that the massive waste of life in our prisons is morally troubling’- Kwame Anthony Appiah [12]

The incarcerated (or victims of Leviathan as I prefer) are left broken, chained, and tethered to their fate, which is captivity and detention. Yet in such circumstances there are those who are resilient and use whatever means at their disposal to undermine the titan by which they have been ensnared. From advocacy and raising awareness of discriminatory and repressive policies and laws, highlighting, and spreading word about the reality of incarceration as well as the conditions of prison. These are examples of ways in which the incarcerated resist the system that holds them in captivity. And by way of the same is the intent of this essay. Taking advantage of the impotent reprieve known as the grievance procedure or otherwise ‘Administrative remedies’, along with others, the most constant form of resistance is never giving up or accepting their condition with a sense of resignation or fatalism.

The incarcerated have joined the national dialogue termed ‘prison reformation’ as the most committed advocates. Yet the fact that they have become participants does not mean that they will be effective nor are they guaranteed an audience, as censorship is rife behind the steel heavy bars and concrete wall. Christopher Zoukis and Imam Jamal AL Amin are among whose voices have been heard above the dull crescendo, and they have become prominent yet still remain as constant victims of censorship.

A liberated world would first and foremost mean the complete and final eradication of Leviathan, at least ideally. It would not be some fantastic utopia nor anarchy and chaos. Rather a balance between the two is sought. Human beings will continue to behave recklessly, and some will always seek to trample the rights of others through some sort of transgression. So, there must always exist means to combat these tendencies and behaviors. Whenever crime exists in society there must always be sufficient and just deterrence and punishment. [13]

Alternatives to prisons should seriously be considered for most non-violent offenses and even violent offenses if committed by those suffering from mental illnesses and juveniles who are not yet adults. Within the 94 federal judicial districts there are only 22 alternatives to incarceration programs. [14] Funding should be diverted from other ineffective government programs to fund and create more of these programs. An increase of funding and reform of in-place re-entry program is needed. Pell grants should be restored to prisoners so they can overcome the ignorance of their criminality and open more avenues that will not include a path to crime by being qualified for better jobs and/or careers. Incentives to prosecutors that reward conviction rates and the length of sentences they seek as well as the incentives to judges who are rewarded for the lengthy sentences imposed in the climate of ‘tough on crime’ politics should be eliminated.

I could see a world where applicants for a job would be free to discuss their criminal history during the job interview without fear of automatic disqualification. A world where people will not be in jail for the sole reason of poverty. [15] A world where correctional departments do not shackle pregnant women. A world where after paying their debt to society a prisoner can easily tread up and down the pathway to success. But we are a long way from there. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles. Lack of training, along with the wrong incentives, make probation departments a tool for recidivism and not for re-integration into society. Ex-prisoners are confronted with the reality of their second-class citizen status each and every time that they fill out a job application that immediately places them into one of two categories, those with a prison history and those without,  [16] before they are even considered for the job. A study published by the Prison Policy Initiative has noted that the ex-prisoner rate of unemployment is “higher than the total US unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression”. [17] The study agrees with the findings that I’ve previously mentioned that ‘formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face structural barriers to securing employment.” “This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counter-productive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.” [18]

A proper ‘Justice’ system would truly have a semblance of justice and enable a smooth transition for prisoners into society. This does not mean that Leviathan remains an unchallenged dragon that no valiant knights have confronted. Nay, there many pioneers from private citizens to organizations who attempt to tackle or ease the harmful effects of mass incarceration, but unless this beast is slayed or methodically euthanized it will only continue to spell trouble for millions of people who are victims. 

There exists a parasitic trickle-down pyramid scheme erected for a minority composed of  indifferent legislators, police unions, bail bondsmen, bounty hunters, lawyers (prosecutors and some defense attorneys), judges, probation officers, correctional guards and their unions – who benefit at the expense of the lives of prisoners, their families, and society at large. I don’t doubt that some may be skeptics and doubt just how bad the current makeup of the justice system is, so I will break down some statistics.

Citing one expert familiar with the data: ‘America’s sentences of imprisonment on average are five to ten times longer than those of France, and much longer than those of Germany…. [I]imprisonment has become the moral mode of dealing with crime in America”. [19] The following statistics were selected from public records of California:

*Nearly 70% of female inmates are non-violent offenders

*2/3 are convicted for property or drug related offenses.

*Over 1/2 of males convicted for violent offenses while only 30% of women convicted for the same.

*4/10 [female] inmates were physically or sexually abused before 18

* Approximately 67% of incarcerated women [there] are mothers, most are single parents and primary caregivers.

* [CA] has about 10,000 female inmates – more than other state

* Incarceration rate for female offenders has doubled over last 20 years.

I’ve chosen to highlight data coming out of California for the following reason: 1) It is one of the top 3 states with the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate [20];  2) People often assume that only conservative states or those run by Republicans are the main perpetrators of mass incarceration, 3) Data regarding female offenders was more easily available.

Now take a hard look at the above. Contemplate and ponder how this is perpetuated on a larger level when it comes to the whole prison population including state and federal. How many women (and parents in general) are taken from their children? How many children are themselves led to criminal behavior due to the trauma exacted upon them from having their parent taken away? How many of these children of prisoners are forced into foster homes, while being placed in one increases the likelihood that a person will turn to crime later in life? Americans need to rethink their institutions. The public have been told that there is an ‘Opioid Crisis’ in America.  The so-called ‘War on drugs’ continues despite findings from researchers and independent reporters and mainstream media such as NPR that the people most affected by it are drug users, children, and other relatives. Yet we still see mass incarceration being perpetuated and continue. 

Is Leviathan a beast that is never satisfied and its jaws like an abyss from which there is no way out? Has it become so powerful that there is a real fear of speaking against it? In the textbooks of schools and even university courses focusing on criminal justice, there is no serious thought given to combating mass incarceration. The data is out, yet we talk only about the effects and not the causes. Foolish would be a field of medicine where the doctors discuss only the symptoms of disease, and not its treatment or cure. Suffice to mention its effect on immigrants and minority population is to know that over 60% of prisoners are black or Hispanic (due to census categories this include foreigners from other countries with no slot listed to check). The DOJ has publicly stated that BOP is 38% over-crowded. So there exists not only mass incarceration but over-incarceration as well.

Things are simply messed up and to fix it we must first realize this. As Helen Keller said: “I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate- that we could mold our lives into any form we pleased… and I supposed that everyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more about the country, I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”[21]

Footnotes: 1.Glenn C. Loury & Bruce Western ‘The Challenge of Mass Incarceration in America’ in Daedalus: Journal of the academy of Arts and Science (Summer 2010) 2.-‘ The rest of the world looks at us and shakes its collective head especially our European allies.” John Kirakou 3.- John Kiriakou 4. For the same crimes American are incarcerated 2x long as English prisoners, 3x as long as Canadians, 4x as Dutch, 10x as French and 5x as Swedish prisoners. 5. Quote by John Kiriakou. ‘China is an authoritarian nation with 3x the population of the US yet the U.S still incarcerate more than it. The national incarceration rate of the US is 737 per 100,000 is more than Russia’s 581 per 100,000[and] much higher than those of peer nations with democratic, market-based economies such countries incarcerate between 36 and 196 per 100,000.”- Nicola Lacey ‘American Imprisonment in Comparative Perspective’ in Daedalus Sumer 2010 6. In the era of Prohibition alcohol was banned in the US and declared illegal yet before that period of ‘Prohibition’ and afterwards it was considered licit. This is similar to what is going on with the new pressing issue today to determine if Marijuana (Cannabis) should be a licit drug or not. This is the utter confusion and inconsistency which these laws and system leave the civilian while also baffling its enactors. 7. There was an incident with a man from the Republic of Georgia who came to the US (specifically Miami, FL) for vacation. As he was in Customs, his luggage was being inspected, he was then arrested for possession and ‘trafficking’ of controlled substances. His thyroid medication wasn’t FDA approved and with the quantity he had with him he was charged and arrested for trafficking. 8. ” If the banishment of an alien from a country in which he has been invited, as the asylum most auspicious to his happiness- a country where he may have formed the most tender connexons, where he may have vested his entire property, and acquired property of the real and permanent, as well as the movable and temporary kind; where he enjoys  under the laws a greater share of the blessings of personal security and personal liberty than he can elsewhere hope for [;]… if a banishment of this sort be not a punishment, and among the severest of punishments, it will be difficult to imagine a term to which that name can be applied.’ -James Madison inveighing against Aliens and Sedition Acts.  In ‘Letters and other writings of James Madison’ (Cornell University 2009). The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1778 curtailed many rights that people enjoyed. Woodrow Wilson and Congress something similar in 1918 called the Sedition Act and it has been described as the most serious attack on American civil liberties since 1178 Act which was short lived.  9. Whenever America is at war it demonizes its enemies along with those who look or resemble them in appearance thought, religion, or philosophy. This was done with Native Americans, Japanese Americans, German Americans, Communist, and Muslims. From both World wars, the Cold War until Post 9/11 which we are now in. This is done through their policies implemented at airports, immigration, policing, and the media. Woodrow Wilson and the DOJ allowed what was called the Creel Committee on Public information to publish ads or wanted posters for ‘German spies’. Its perpetuated mass suspicion and employed citizens to report on the activities of their neighbors. Public distrust was at an all-time high. In 1920 President Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the 1918 Seditions Act. 10. Policy guides and direct everything that contributes to mass incarceration. As we can see today under the Trump administration where his anti-where policies have caused the arrest of legal and undocumented immigrants to skyrocket. After Bush enacted the PATRIOT ACT the same happened; there was an increase of Muslims and Middle Easterners who were arrested and/or had immigration removal proceeding initiated against them. 11. Michael Scherer Dec 19, 2012 Times 2012 person of the year. 12. The Washington Post, ‘What will future generations condemn us for?’ Sep. 26, 2010 13. Before the American Revolution, colonial courts fashioned sentences with three basic purposes in mind: to punish the offender for his crime, thereby satisfying society’s desire for retribution to deter others from committing the same crime by demonstrating its disadvantageous consequences; and to incapacitate the wrongdoer, so as to protect society from further criminal activity. -United States v. Scroggins 880 F.2d L204, 1206 (11th Cir. 1989). In the 1800’s, penological experts became “dissatisfied with the failure of prisons to rehabilitate inmates,” and rehabilitation became a fourth basis of sentencing. yet America’s system has failed at that objective in a very drastic way. See also Arthur W. Campbell, ‘The Law of Sentencing (2009) 14. Many counties, and states have begun to see the benefit of alternative to prison programs, sadly though the ‘benefits’ they consider is only in regard to taxpayers’ money. Earlier in 2018 the Brennan Center released a criminal justice agenda which offers option for reforming local prosecutors’ incentives. Jan. 2017 Ohio launched T-CAP (Targeted Community Alternative to Prison), under it the state/county pays penalty for every person sent to prison for certain low class felonies and it forces them to reprioritize whom they lock up. Illinois implemented ARI (Adult Redeploy Illinois) in 2009 which works though grants to counties so that they can develop alternatives to incarceration, problem solving courts, enhanced probation, and other alternatives. Such a program on a larger scale can only hope to succeed and a reformed criminal justice system would prioritize programs like this over incarceration. 15. “Liberty is precious to Americans and any deprivation must be scrutinized. To protect public safety and ensure that those accused of a crime will appear at trial, persons charged with breaking the law may be detained before their guilt or innocence can be adjudicated, but that detention must not extend beyond its justifications. Many who are arrested cannot afford a bail bond and remain in jail awaiting a hearing. Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs and families, and are more likely to re-offend. And if all of this weren’t bad enough, taxpayers must shoulder the cost-a staggering, $1 billion per year.” – The Honorable Nathan L. Hecht, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, remarks delivered to the 85th Texas legislature, Feb. 1, 2017. There is a joint lawsuit against Harris County by former inmates alleging that it deprived them, and others similarly situated, of due process and detaining them because of their inability to pay a secured money bond. A 22-year-old single parent was arrested for driving without a valid license.  She had a $2,500 bond which she was not able to pay. She struggled to meet the basic necessities of life and was a recipient the federal welfare program WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) to feed her daughter and lived with a friend because she couldn’t afford housing. She was working a stable job that she held for 7 days at the time. She was released after 3 days due to assistance by a generous individual who heard of her situation. Another 22-year-old pregnant and single woman in worst circumstances who had a child with Down’s syndrome spent 4 days due to her inability to pay a bond. This is the reason that many advocates are demanding a removal of cash bond which the state of California has become one of the first to do so. The aforementioned case is Maranda Lynn O’Donnell V. Harris County (Texas) April 28, 2017. Hostages of Leviathan who are held for ransom, basically. 16. One with a criminal history and one without. Human Rights Defense Center has said that incarceration status should be on list of protected classes when it comes to discrimination such as Race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and disability. 17. PPI Study released July 2018 title ‘Out of prison & out of work’, which finds that ‘27% of an estimated 5 million ex-offenders are unemployed or around 1,350,000 compared to national unemployment rate of 4%. 18.Ibid 19. Joshua Kleinfeild, The Concept of Evil in German and American Criminal Punishment http//ssrn.com/author+151440 19. (Working paper Sep.9,2010) 20. They included Florida, Texas, and California. Largest incarceration rate and prison population. 21. Helen Keller [Midstream: My Later Life (New York; Greenwood, 1968 (1929) p.156]

Author Bio: My name is Abdul-Jalil Rashid Al-Imarah (S. Baptiste) and I am a political prisoner unjustly being held in an American prison due to political and religious views. I am an Islamist, Poet, and writer. I also enjoy engaging discussions about social justice, Shari’ah, and political science. I’m an avid reader and can be reached at: Samuel Baptiste #09681-104, FDC Miami, PO BOX 019120,  Miami, FL 33101

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