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Prison Time

A good friend of mine was recently released from prison after serving three years for a fraud conviction.  He had proof of his innocence but wasn’t allowed to enter it into evidence. As he put it ” The District Attorney and the police conspired together to convict me and they succeeded.”

He told me his story and shared the inadmissible evidence. I personally know this guy and his character. I believe him. But, we live in an age of rules, regulations and laws that make it difficult for even the most honest of people to stay within the law. And, of course, we have different laws for different people. (Hilary Clinton serves no time).

Naturally, my friend was more than concerned about finding a job following his release. Surprisingly, he found one fairly quickly. Today, he is back on his feet. He does not feel stigmatized. In fact, according to him, his story now makes great dinner table conversation! The response that he gets from colleagues and peers, once they found out about his prison stint, is, curiously, indifference.

Why?

We now live in a society where everyone knows the system is rigged.  There is no stigma attached to having been in prison because the general public knows it can happen to anyone. Well, almost anyone. (Remember Hillary Clinton?). Simply stated, people no longer trust our police or the legal system.

When I was in high school, I took Russian Studies and learned about the Russian Revolution and the horrors of the Gulag. The Gulag was established by Joseph Stalin. It was a work camp that existed from  the 1930’s to the 1950’s and imprisoned around 14 million people. The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote many stories about the horrors of the Gulag and his books describe the terrible circumstances that innocents suffered. The Gulag became a prototypical symbol of an out-of- control-government and a warning of what could happen to you on its whim. Later, schools taught students about the Gulag to warn others about the perils of an overzealous government forcibly condemning its people to imprisonment.

Remarkably, the United States penal system has has now surpassed the Gulag in terms of the sheer number of those imprisoned.  What is more shocking is that our prison population has reached an ominous milestone over the past few years. The number of Americans who were in jail and prison, including former inmates, is approximately 19 million people as of 2010. This number exceeds the 18 million people who endured Soviet Gulag incarceration between 1929 and 1953.

The Conservative media seems to gloss over this story. I listen to quite a bit of Conservative talk radio on a daily basis and all I hear from the pundits is how free our country is. But how free can a country be when we have the highest incarceration rate in the world?

I have both traveled and worked in other countries. I can state firsthand that we are not, in many ways, the freest country in the world. I have been amazed by how much easier it is to do certain things in other countries. For example, I found the medical care and dental care in Australia much more affordable and accessible than here in the U.S… without all of the paperwork. I was amazed how easy it was to do business in Hong Kong. The city is now considered the best place in the world to start business. Take a listen:

When I worked in banking in the U.S., I had to be licensed and regulated. My emails were continually monitored. My conversations taped. Anything we sent out was vetted by lawyers. Americans have become so enslaved and yet we think all this monitoring is “freedom.” If I had broken any of those myriad of laws and regulations, I could have easily ended up in prison…like my friend.

Our ever-increasing laws are complex and arbitrary, which greatly reduce our freedoms and daily ensnare more and more of us.

For example, Martha Stewart was convicted and went to jail for making money on a trade (“insider trading”) that harmed no one. Yet Stan O’Neal, who bankrupted one of the largest financial firms in the world (Merrill Lynch), causing the loss of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, walked away unscathed. No jail time, millions of dollars in personal profit and the unfettered ability to start over again. When most Americans hear this injustice they siply shrug. We have come to expect these inequities and unequal application of the law.

There is no longer fairness in our justice system.

The increasing incarceration rates and resulting diminution of our freedoms is partially caused by the move to criminalize all manner of activity; but especially drugs. Whenever the U.S. has cracked done on drugs, it understandably worsened the problem. Alcohol provides the classic example: It wasn’t much of a problem before the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, and it hasn’t been one since its repeal in the 1930’s

The Prohibition of the ’20s turned the Mafia from a small underground group of disconnected individuals into centralized big business. It turned citizens and businessmen into criminals. “The War on Drugs” has done the same thing for drug dealers. Its turned petty drug dealers into kingpins. (As an aside, “The War on Poverty” has created more poor people. You’d think we’d stop making war).

Making a product illegal artificially turns both users and suppliers into criminals. The illegality makes the product vastly more expensive than it would otherwise be and opens the black market floodgate that draws in not only more seasoned criminals but also entices those who alter the substances with deadly fillers in order to maximize profit.  Crime becomes a health crisis as well.  In addition, many users who become addicted are driven to crime to finance their habits. Because of the risks and and reduced supply, profits for suppliers are huge and, therefore, attract the most greedy and ruthless people to run these organizations.

When you combine corrupt law makers with a corrupted justice system then add prisons and illegal activities run for profit, you create a dysfunctional and deadly incentive to arrest and imprison people. Such is where we have arrived.

Welcome to the Land of the Free.

Steve

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