If all great truths begin as blasphemies, as George Bernard Shaw put it, we in Canada find ourselves living in a theocracy. Certainly even Adam and Eve would wonder at the spectacular efforts to preserve the innocence of ignorance undertaken by our present government. It has taken a valiant stand against sex education so we may uncover our nakedness. In seeking to dismantle the National Archives, they will free us from knowledge of good and evil. Thanks to the government’s destruction of the integrity of census data, we are free from even the prospect of acquiring knowledge.
But to be sure we are safe from it, they are throwing whole libraries into the trash, and forbidding the wicked among us from sharing their dangerous truths with the press.
So we are nearly free of blasphemy, and what greater expression of piety than prisons? At a time when American districts are turning away from the tough on crime approach, Canada embraces it enthusiastically. If books are not totally passe at this point, I should recommend to the Justice Minister and any higher powers to which he might answer a thorough reading of ‘Race To Incarcerate.’
‘Race To Incarcerate’ practically bursts its bindings with relevant historical, sociological and economic data. It doesn’t shrink from statistics either, as it outlines the growth in prison populations, corrections spending and the prevalence of private prisons. Exploring public attitudes towards morality, the dishonesty of elected representatives and the role played by the War on Drugs, this expressive tome shines light onto critical questions in one area of public policy where high-minded moralizing has long reigned supreme.
The comic traces the evolution of America’s obsession with getting ‘tough on crime’ from its beginnings in the 1970s through to the second Bush administration. Along the way it explores the impact of the War on Drugs, changes in social attitudes towards crime and the role of racism in expanding the prison-industrial complex. On the political file, the crass electoral motives of successive legislators are exposed. Clinton and George W. Bush are particularly held up as hypocrites, promising to reform the system while allowing prison spending and populations to grow in tandem.
The comic does an excellent job of outlining the role played by racism in incarcerating black and Hispanic Americans at a disproportionate rate. Racism, and underlying white cultural anxieties, are ably exposed as the culprits for rates of black incarceration. The usual apologies for the racial composition of the prison population are handily debunked. The proverbial fig leaf is pulled away, and the naked truth is not a pretty thing to behold.
If there is a flaw in ‘Race To Incarcerate’, it is in the conclusion. After spending the majority of its pages identifying the endemic racism in American society, it proposes a coalition of business, academic leaders, communities of colour and families of addicts to tackle the problem by lobbying the government. The book persuasively argues that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. It then proposes the problems be solved through a coalition made up in part by the rich and powerful appealing to the very politicians whose dishonesty it has exposed. Some business leaders may feel compelled to oppose the prison industrial complex, but it is a drop in the bucket to a system that has been constructed–designed–in the interests of corporate profits.
Furthermore, the book is right to suggest the involvement communities of colour, but missed the opportunity to highlight one of the most important groups of all – prisoners and ex-convicts themselves. Prisoners and ex-cons not only deserve the right to tell their stories, their voices should be at the forefront of a prison abolition movement. Regardless of the accuracy of the book’s conclusion, the information in it can help persuade regular people that prisons don’t work.
But the truth, we are told, shall set us free. The Conservative government is hot to bring many of the measures described in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ up to Canada, including mandatory minimum sentences and private prisons. The message of ‘Race To Incarcerate’ is clear: prisons don’t work. But more than that, they are dangerous to a degree that should alarm us. Indigenous people make up about 4% of Canada’s population, but 23% of its prison population – and the rates are climbing. In Canada, prisons are looking more and more like another form of genocide.
The facts in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ won’t liberate those prisoners, but they can free the rest of us from the moralizing naiveté that justifies mass imprisonment. Liberated from our ignorance, we can turn our attention to prying open the bars of the prison industrial complex.