Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Handcuffed Nation

Picture an elementary school carnival on a beautiful May evening, celebrating the rapidly approaching end of the school year. Excited children, proud parents, cotton candy, popcorn – and of course games. Pay your money and take your chance, with a few dollars getting you tokens and tickets to play ring-toss and other retro carnie contests harkening back to a less digital time in American life. All quite idyllic and almost timeless.

One of the game prizes my boys won, however, gave me pause. Most of the prizes were candy in one form or another, and there were various harmless small toys. One of those was a small pair of handcuffs. Though it was clearly a toy and not threatening in itself, its presence signaled to me an ominous reality. In America today, we all live in Prison Nation.

When and how did handcuffs become so ingrained in our culture that they become a throwaway toy at a school fair, like something in a box of crackerjacks? It happened in only one generation, as an incarceration explosion fueled by racial differences, flawed drug wars and cynical politics put 2.2 million people behind bars.

Nothing can change until we name the problem. A great deal of detailed and difficult work needs to be done to reorient sentencing and correctional policies so that handcuffs are not a ubiquitous symbol of an iniquitous system that drags down too many lives and drains too many dollars from more productive uses. Yet whether Jim Webb’s bill calling for a national commission passes this year or not, I feel sure − to again borrow a line from Dylan − a change is gonna come. It had better, because the hard rain is already falling.

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