By Noel Ignatiev
The story is all over the internet and the social media about the Delaware judge who sentenced a DuPont heir convicted of raping his three-year-old daughter to eight years probation instead of prison, on the grounds that he would not fare well in prison. Angry facebook posters have pointed to the case as an example of the double standard for rich and poor. Of course it is that. But have any of them considered the alternatives? Do they believe that the cause of humanity would be better served by sending even an unspeakable low-life like him to prison where he would be subject to the special treatment reserved for short-eyes?
As it happens, I have just been reading Paul Goodman’s Introduction to the 1970 edition of Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. Goodman writes:
Men like Kropotkin, Berkman, and Debs and were quite certain, both by their philosophy and the evidence of their senses, that the concept of punishment is worthless and the jails must simply be abolished. The Bastille is the essence of what is rotten and must be stormed first.… In our times, however, even thoughtful pacifists and libertarian socialists hardly mention the abolition of jails…
One possible explanation is that our militants are so stupid that they take prison for an acceptable institution for their enemies. I have seen a sign at a demonstration, Free Such and Such! Put District Attorney X in jail!”…
But I doubt that our present radicals really are this stupid. I suspect that the truth is much more terrible.
Rather, the jails, like the high schools, like the swollen cities, like the polluted rivers, like the TV, like slow or quick violence, are taken for granted as the nature of things. People are so swamped by the conditions of modern life that they do not really believe these evils are human artifacts and could be otherwise. And when in daily life people are harried, circumscribed, bored and threatened anyway, the difference between being out of jail and in jail tends to diminish. I wonder whether, to a frank glance, the routine of most of us in New York does not seem very like jail, some with privileges, some in solitary.
Prison is the crime.
Noel Ignatiev can be reached at [email protected]