Wednesday, February 9, 2011

R: Bring back the stocks

I delivered this speech last night at the Yale Political Union's annual Gardner-White Prize Debate on the topic, Resolved: Bring back the stocks, and took second place. Miss Libresco of Unequally Yoked took first!

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. ... The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we've heard much tonight about shame and humiliation, but I stand before you now not to outline some “high embarrassment theory”, nor to indulge some quasi-medieval fantasy of communal accountability, but to remind us all of the profound disgrace we have let befall our country. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to shame you.

Mr Speaker, what do China, Belarus, and Iran have in common? I think the body already knows! All of these countries-- and many more besides-- have lower incarceration rates than the United States of America. Our country: home of the fire that would light the world, the shining city upon a hill, the last, best hope of earth-- where 748 of every 100,000 residents wake up in jumpsuits instead of pajamas and in cells of iron and concrete instead of homes. Let me stress how phenomenally high that number is: the United States comprises less than 5% of the world's population, but nearly 25% of the world's prisoners are American.

How did we get here? How did the land of the free become the land where, despite relatively constant rates of violent crime over the past three decades, our prison population has quadrupled? The culprits are many, including mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strike” rules, and, of course, the War on Drugs.

However, to blame our legislators would be to ignore our complicity: through unforgivable apathy and willful ignorance, we, too, are guilty. Guilty of perpetuating “a society of captives”, and guilty of sitting idly by while American ghettos feed overpopulated prisons like some diseased vulture regurgitating its last meal into the throat of its chick, fatally poisoning it thereby.

Now Mr Speaker, I do not mean to imply that our nation's inmates are without guilt, or undeserving of punishment, but I think it is by now clear that we as a society are wholly unaware of what I deem to be the most pressing issue facing modern America.

To the fiscal conservatives: in 2005, it cost an average of $24,000 to imprison someone for one year. States vary wildly, however-- in Rhode Island, they managed to spend $45,000 per inmate. We could've sent them to Brown for 39.

To those concerned with justice: there has been more significantly more legislation about banning smoking in prisons than about collecting data on rape and sexual assault, much less doing anything to prevent it, but according to Human Rights Watch, 140,000 American inmates are raped each year. I refuse to believe that that is a price any of us are willing to pay for “justice”.

Are you worried about safety? Since 1980, the number of drug offenders in our prisons has increased 1200%. But aren't most drug offenders violent criminals? Only 1 in 10 federal crack offenses involves violence, or the threat of violence. Whether you think cocaine in vending machines is the American way or not, I think we can all agree that pedophiles, rapists, and murderers take precedence.

The absurdity of the resolution aside, tonight's debate is far from a joke. I apologize for not having paid sufficient lip service to tonight's conceit, but the criminal justice system in this country is an abomination, and it is a black mark upon all of our souls that we pay more attention to unions, and guns, and charter schools, and whatever drivel Sarah Palin or Keith Olbermann said last night, than to prison reform. I stand here tonight in the affirmative because there is nothing more shameful, nothing that goes more against the noble spirit President Kennedy alluded to in his inaugural address, than the family-destroying, spirit-crushing, agency-erasing, hellholes of drug addiction, violence, and rape into which we so nonchalantly throw thousands upon thousands of American citizens every blessed year.

Whether you care about freedom, or justice, or equality, or the strength of the economy, or the legalization of drugs, or the spread of AIDS in inner cities, or all of the above and then some, you must vote in the affirmative tonight. Yes, the stocks are primitive, cruel, barbaric, and exposed prisoners to all kinds of verbal and physical abuse—but compared to what we have now, they are downright progressive.

Thank you.

My thanks to Professor David Wagner, who helped me research this speech (here I note that it was originally much longer, and had to be cut rather significantly to come in under four minutes). He blogs about legal issues at Ninomania.

Organizations and blogs that deal with prison reform and related issues:

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