Two staggering statistics illustrate the fact that the crisis afflicting the capitalist world is not just an economic crisis but a moral crisis as well. In the United States today, there are 2.2 million men and women behind bars. A country that accounts for 5% of the world’s population has 25% of the world’s prisoners. The prison population has grown to this astonishing number from less than half a million in 1980.
This is not just the highest rate of incarceration in the world, at about 764 prisoners for every 100,000 people (2009 figures). It is also way higher than any other country. It also varies considerably from state to state: in Louisiana, the figure is more than double the national imprisonment rate: here there are 1619 prisoners per 100,000 people.
(By way of comparison: the country that comes closest to the US is Rwanda, with about 600 prisoners per 100,000, followed by Russia with 577. China imprisons about 200 per 100,000 people, about the same rate as New Zealand.The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Italy all imprison between 120 and 150 people per 100,000; Japan a lower rate of 59.)
The second statistic is related to the first. Of those in prison in the US, only 3% were convicted in a jury trial. The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers, one of the foundations of bourgeois democracy, is only exercised by about 10% of those charged with felony offences (the difference between the two percentages is because some are acquitted). The other 90% enter guilty pleas under the system of ‘plea-bargaining.’
Briefly, the way it works is this: accused people are threatened with every charge under the sun and a few more besides, with possible sentences lasting an entire lifetime, and then they are offered a deal: if you plead guilty to this ‘lesser charge,’ we’ll drop the other charges. The threat works in the vast majority of cases. In the few cases where defendants insist on their constitutional right to a trial, the threat is carried out. Studies have shown that those found guilty in court do indeed get sentences about five times as long as those convicted of similar crimes through plea-bargains.
The way it works has been very eloquently explained in this short article on the case of Aaron Swartz, who could not bring himself of plead guilty to charges of computer hacking, nor could he face the alternative, and so took his own life a year ago. I urge you to click on the link and read it.
There are among the ruling class in the United States more than a million lawyers – about one lawyer for every two people in jail – and these people have had years of education in the principles of bourgeois law. I am sure that at least some of them (not to mention other members of the bourgeoisie) are acquainted with these two statistics, and have considered the fact that if the hard-won right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is only actually exercised by 10% of those accused of crimes, then that right no longer exists in fact. Nor do any of the other rights which are consequent upon it, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to confront your accusers, the right to seek counsel, the protections against self-incrimination, the protections against unreasonable search or seizures, and so on.
Yet, as the very foundations of bourgeois democracy rot away under their feet, how many ruling class voices have been raised in protest against these facts? To put the same question in another form, how many from among that class can see any ‘realistic’ alternative to the present course of universal plea-bargaining blackmail and mass incarceration?
Keep this question in mind, because this is what moral cowardice looks like. This is what a moral crisis looks like. This is what a ruling class looks like when it has lost all moral right to rule. There will be more such moral crises in the coming years, among the bourgeoisie and all those who look to them for guidance.
And it is their moral crisis, not ours. From the other side of the prison bars, from among our class, the polar opposite course of moral conduct can be seen. Already on this blog I have discussed the outstanding example of the Short Corridor Collective, a multi-racial leadership that was built in the unimaginably difficult conditions of the solitary confinement cells in California prisons, and which led the broadest hunger strike protest by prisoners in many years.
There is another fine example in the group of prisoners known as the Cuban Five. Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González were arrested in 1988, tried and convicted on frame-up charges that included conspiracy to commit espionage, and sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from fifteen years for René González to a double life sentence for Gerardo Hernández. René González was released last year, after serving his entire sentence, and returned to Cuba. Fernando González was released just a few days ago.
In fact, the five were guilty of no crime at all. What they were doing was collecting information of murderous counter-revolutionary Cuban American paramilitary organisations, which operate with impunity from bases in the US. These groups have a fifty-year history of organising bombings, assassinations, and other assaults on Cubans and other supporters of the Cuban revolution within the US, in Cuba itself, and other countries.
The Cuban Five have won broad respect, both among their fellow prisoners and beyond prison walls for their integrity, their outstanding moral courage and exemplary conduct during their trial and in prison. These men rejected with contempt the plea-bargaining blackmail – and so they paid the price with draconian sentences imposed.
Two great little books released in recent weeks document the years in prison of these working class fighters. In Voices from Prison we can read accounts from two people who first got to know them while serving time in US prisons together with them. One of these was Carlos Alberto Torres, a fighter for Puerto Rican independence who himself served 30 years in US prisons before being released in 2010. It includes accounts from the Five of the psychological torture of solitary confinement they were subjected to – supposedly for “security reasons” – a punitive measure that is routinely used to break prisoners’ spirits. As Gerardo Hernández comments, “Many people couldn’t take it. You would see them lose their minds, screaming.”
Everything, from the violent ‘arrest’ onwards, is designed to dehumanise the prisoner, to break their spirit and coerce them to become a turncoat. (René González describes him own ordeal at the hands of the cops, commenting that ‘in the United States, “arrest” is a euphemism for assault’). “The best thing you can do is to cooperate with us,” Gerardo Hernández’s interrogators told him. “We’ll give you whatever you want. We’ll change your identity, give you bank accounts.”
Whatever I wanted, if I became a traitor – Hernández writes.
René González was interviewed on his return to Cuba last year, and was asked what he held onto, to keep from selling out. “Human dignity” was his response. “I believe in the value of dignity. The trial showed that there are some who don’t believe in it, but human values do exist. We all assert them, but under conditions like those, you see who believes in them and who doesn’t. The Five believed in them”.
“On top of that, is the way [the prosecutors] act. You see them lying to the judge, blackmailing witnesses, deceiving the court, defying the judge’s orders, lying to the jury, coaching people to lie. As you see the depths to which they will go, you say: just how low can they get? At that point you tell yourself: I can’t give in to these people.”
The second book, “I will die the way I’ve lived,” consists of reproductions of fifteen watercolours done in prison by Antonio Guerrero, one for each of the fifteen years he has served so far, together with a commentary by Gerardo, Antonio, and Ramón. They depict some of the daily acts of resistance and survival in prison – such as communicating with other prisoners through the air vents, making a set of dice out of dough made from a mixture of bread and toothpaste (and keeping them concealed, to avoid getting a disciplinary write-up for ‘gambling’!), and having one of the dice get eaten by cockroaches.
Both of these little books would serve well as handbooks for workers everywhere who get caught up in the capitalist justice and prison systems. But beyond that, they also present an excellent example of the contrasting moral characters of two opposing classes, the bourgeoisie in its state of terminal decline, and the working class preparing itself for power.