The Powerful And Powerless

Extremes clarify the center. Today's section presents two extremes:

The power that financial wealth brings to individuals. The powerlessness that prison produces in individuals.

At power's intersection sits social conscience. Conscience speaks for itself, to itself.

Who doesn't want to be rich? Who hasn't thought about how being rich could change his or her life? But who thinks about men and women in prison? I certainly do my share of forgetting. Yet it is inescapable that we all play some part, however small, in who gets locked up.

David Holmstrom's interview with Daniel Bergner, author of "God of the Rodeo," a book about seven inmates in Louisiana's notorious Angola prison, asks another question: Who runs our prisons?

On one unforgettable assignment for the Monitor, I worked two eight-hour shifts as a guard inside the Rikers Island jail in New York City, the largest penal colony in America. More than 14,000 individuals, mostly men, are warehoused there, awaiting trial or sentencing.

My piece of the action was a dormitory section with 80 inmates, two correction officers, and me. When the steel door shut, it was clear that the keepers were as much the kept. Jail, rather than prison, is still pretrial, still short term. Hope for release or parole is still a legitimate mental state for these prisoners. It shows in their eyes.

Prison is longer. It's hard time, and the hard men stare differently in prison, however much they deserve to be there.

After my brief stint as a guard, Ben Ward, former commissioner of corrections in New York City in the 1980s, asked me how many governors or mayors campaign for, and get elected on, a platform of prison reform?

The answer was simple - not many. Sadly, the same question would get the same answer today.

Governors, mayors, and elected county sheriffs appoint the people who run our lockups. And the first line on the job description usually reads, "Don't get the governor's or the mayor's or the sheriff's name in the papers." Regardless, taxpayers foot the bill.

Laurent Belsie's cover article looks at the phenomenon of a mass upper class, a new stratum of wealthy individuals in such numbers as to possibly alter the fabric of society. He quotes one scholar who says about this dawning of a new Gilded Age: "We have a country that's built on the Reagan consciousness - 'I want this to be a place where everybody can get rich' - and we have the Ben Franklin consciousness - the golden mean. There seems to be a pendulum swinging back and forth."

Henry David Thoreau's words penned in 1854 in "Walden" knock the swing of that pendulum: "The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot: ...they are cooked, of course la mode. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."

Locking culpable men and women in cages for years on end is still a necessity. A democracy defines itself by its prisons, just as wealthy people's commitment to civic duty defines a society.

Next Tuesday, in the US, there will be elections. Rich or poor, voters will decide who runs our prisons. Make it an act of civic "elevation" to consider this and vote.

* Comments or questions? Write Ideas Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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