Archive for the ‘Prisons’ Category

Against the “Don’t Vote” Argument

November 8, 2014


Over the past few days, I have read a number of articles that have posited various reasons for why the last election turned out the way it did: low turnout, Republican gerrymandering, the weak economy, the stupidity of the Democrats, etc. I think there is some truth to all of these arguments. What I would like to address here, though, is an argument that some of my leftist friends made, which is that we shouldn’t vote. I can understand why people would feel this way, since our political system is such a scam. Yet I think the argument is seriously lacking in some ways.

In the last election, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts passed a paid sick days law. Denton, Texas, outlawed fracking. Here in California, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces many non-violent crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a major blow against what the late Alexander Cockburn called “the prosecutorial state” – in other words the warehousing of human beings who committed petty crimes. This vote indicates there has been a huge shift in consciousness since the 1990’s, when Californians passed the god-awful “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in people being sentenced for life for such trivial offenses as stealing a slice of pizza. People are beginning to realize that mass incarceration is not only not the solution to our society’s problems, but it actually makes them worse.

Should you vote? I would argue it depends on the circumstances and what’s on the ballot. Yes, we have a terrible political system, but we should take advantage of what little room to maneuver that we have.

Hotel California

July 8, 2013

California Prisons

California’s prison system is a disgrace. Today, prisoners at the Pelican Bay prison are going on a hunger strike to protest the fact that they have been in solitary confinement for years, and in some cases, for decades. At almost the same time, there have been revelations that between 2006 and 2010, the prison system sterilized almost 150 women:

    Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.

    “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” Nguyen, 28, said. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

Eugenics is alive and well in the Golden State. Ah, but that is not the only problem. Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated that he will not comply with a court order that he reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which are currently at 200% of their capacity. The courts have ordered the governor to reduce the prison population so that the prisons are at 137.5% capacity. That is, they are merely asking the state to make the prisons a little less overcrowded. Yet even that is too much for Gov. Brown, who wants to appeal the case to the Supreme Court a second time, even though the high court has already ruled that the state must comply with the lower court’s ruling.

Oh, and California is considered a “liberal” state.

The Master

October 1, 2012

Scientology was a logical product of post-World War II America. In a society flush with an extraordinary military victory and enjoying an unprecedented economic prosperity, it seemed inconceivable to anyone that there could be any excuse for not being prosperous and happy. It was not unreasonable then for people to look for the solutions to their problems inside themselves. Psychoanalysis enjoyed its greatest popularity in the U.S. during this period. Scientology, with its roots in pulp fiction (Hubbard was sometimes called the “King of the Pulps”), was a sort of pop culture Freudianism, albeit with religious overtones that were understandable to Americans who had been exposed to evangelical Christianity.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film has a character who is obviously modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, although Anderson insists that the film is not actually about Scientology. Fred Qwell (Joaquin Phoezix) is a World War II veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (In those days, it was called “combat fatigue”.) He is severely alcoholic, and he is unable to hold down a job. One night, hungry and desperate, he stows away aboard a yacht on which a party is taking place. When people on the yacht discover him, they treat him kindly. They take him to the yacht’s “commander”, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd takes a liking to Qwell, and he begins to treat Qwell as though he were another one of his guests. We learn that Dodd is the leader of a movement known as The Cause. He has developed a form of analysis that he believes can make people achieve happiness and ultimately solve all of mankind’s problems It becomes clear to the viewer that Dodd is suffering from megalomania, but Qwell finds him charming, likable, and impressive. Dodd uses Qwell as a test-subject for his theories. Qwell develops a strong emotional attachment to Dodd, so much so that he sometimes physically assaults people who criticize “The Master”. The film subtly suggests that Dodd, for his part, develops a psychic dependence on the fiercely loyal Qwell.

When I went to see The Master, I was under the impression that it was going to be mainly about Dodd. The advertising seems to indicate that. In fact, it turns out to be essentially about Qwell and his efforts to make sense out of the world. I’m afraid some people may find it disappointing for that reason. However, I found it fascinating to watch and emotionally compelling. Hoffman’s performance is amazing. This is the best American film I have seen so far this year.

Music from the Big House

June 23, 2012

Rita Chiarelli and Ray Jones in Music from the Big House.

During the 1880’s, a former Confederate army officer named Samuel James persuaded the Louisiana state government to let him lease convicts (most of them black) to work his plantation, known as “Angola”, because it was believed that the slaves who once worked there were from that country. After James died, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on the site. It was commonly known as Angola Prion. It is said that conditions there were horrendous. It is also believed that the prison played a role in the development of blues music. Leadbelly and other musicians spent time there as prisoners.

The Canadian musician, Rita Chiarelli, visited Angola while she was doing research on the history of blues music. She discovered that some of the prisoners there play blues or country music. She decided to organize a concert in which she would perform with these men. This took a certain amount of courage, considering that these men were convicted of violent crimes. Most of them are serving life sentences.

Of the various people we meet in this film, perhaps the most interesting is Ray Jones, who has been a prisoner at Angola for thirty years. He killed a man during a drunken fight. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tells us, “In Louisiana, life means life”, meaning that the parole board rarely shortens convicts’ sentences. Jones expects to spend the rest of his life at Angola. Chiarelli tells us that most of the people we see in this film will probably die in prison. (In one scene, we are shown the prison cemetery.) Not surprisingly, many of them are deeply religious. (Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”) Jones is an ordained minister, and he acts as a spiritual adviser to the other prisoners, as well as being the prison librarian. (I know a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent time in prison. He too became a minister.)

Although conditions at Angola have improved since the early twentieth century, it is, like all prisons, a grim place. In one scene we are shown the area in which Jones lives. There are about fifty bunk beds lined up in rows. The prisoners keep their belongings in wooden boxes at the foot of their beds. They have no privacy. We are told that this is actually one of the better parts of the penitentiary. Prisoners are moved here as a reward for good behavior.

The concert scenes are wonderful to watch. Chiarelli is an appealing person, and she develops a real rapport with the prisoners. At a time when there are incessant calls for increasingly harsh punishments for crimes, it is refreshing to see a film that argues for the possibility of human redemption.