This past Saturday we set up a literature table at the 2nd Annual Social Justice Conference at Cabrillo College. By all indications it was a successful event. I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to attend any of the conference sessions, but I did have a chance to talk to some of the attendees. They were all interested in what secular humanism had to say about social justice issues.
I for one think that our so-called “criminal justice system” is in fact a “criminal” injustice system, if you get the gist of my drift. The statistics don’t lie and the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated in California and country-wide are testament to that fact (1). On a broader scale the USA has a larger proportion of its population in jail than any other country including the much-maligned People’s Republic of China (2). As of 2002 the total number of prisoners in all jurisdictions in the US exceeded 2,000,000. Of these nearly 800,000 were African-American males! That’s nearly 40% of the prison population from a population that represents only 12.7% of the country’s total (3). Of course a large segment of those jailed are incarcerated on drug offences (4) compounding the problem. I can’t imagine that any of this is news to anybody. To my mind, however, it represents one of the greatest crises facing our nation in terms of the waste of human lives and material resources it all entails. More money is spent in California building prisons and warehousing prisoners than is spent on higher education. As an indication of the depths of denial in this country, nary a mention of these circumstances has been made in any of the innumerable presidential debates held to date and it is not an issue that has been raised at anytime during the campaign’s of any of the candidates.
As a secular humanist I would argue that our whole system of jailing prisoners in modern day dungeons, as depicted on TV in such series as MSNBC’s Lockup, is an anachronism of unimaginable magnitude. The whole raison d'être of our penal system is based on socially sanctioned retribution and punishment of the transgressor with its roots in the patriarchal tenets of the Old Testament. It only serves to perpetuate and exacerbate criminal behavior. Even when rehabilitation is considered a part of the process it is within the context of the total degradation and dehumanization of the prisoner. The humanist position should be (1) recognition of the need to remove the offender from society at large in order to protect the citizenry from injury; (2) placement of criminals in secure facilities that prevent them from escape, and (3) creating facilities that preserve human dignity, and give the prisoner opportunities for education and socially constructive and productive activities. This may sound like pie in the sky, but I think a human system of incarceration and rehabilitation is possible if we put our minds and commit our resources to the task.