Prisoners of the American Dream

Posted: 5 August 2016 in Uncategorized
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I keep finding myself reminding relatives and friends that, when it comes to the pronouncements of mainstream economists (like Greg Mankiw) and presidential candidates (of which we’re now down to two, at least in terms of major political parties), there’s another America out there, which many of us only dimly view.

But every once in a while, we get a sense of what is going on, often through good reporting (in addition to, as Bill Moyers suggests, short stories, novels, and plays by working-class writers).

One example is the remarkable—and bone-chilling—article by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones. Back in 2014, Bauer went undercover at a private, for-private prison in Louisiana, working as a guard. Conditions at the prison were extraordinarily bad, for inmates and guards alike. Four months later he was found out, when a Mother Jones videographer was arrested while gathering footage nearby. The resulting essay is 35,000-word opus accompanied by a six-part video series (of which the first is at the top of this post). Basically, it’s a story of how the corporate search for profits led to a lack of resources in the cell blocks Bauer patrolled, while low wages created a constant turnover among employees. Inmates lived in overcrowded squalor and were routinely denied health care for serious psychological and physical sickness. And prison officials and guards resorted to the use of arbitrary force in the absence of of proper staffing and facilities.

Here’s a short excerpt (from chapter 3):

The walk is eerily quiet. Crows caw, fog hangs low over the basketball courts. The prison is locked down. Programs have been canceled. With the exception of kitchen workers, none of the inmates can leave their dorms. Usually, lockdowns occur when there are major disturbances, but today, with some officers out for the holidays, guards say there just aren’t enough people to run the prison. (CCA says Winn was never put on lockdown due to staffing shortages.) The unit manager tells me to shadow one of the two floor officers, a burly white Marine veteran. His name is Jefferson, and as we walk the floor an inmate asks him what the lockdown is about. “You know half of the fucking people don’t want to work here,” Jefferson tells him. “We so short-staffed and shit, so most of the gates ain’t got officers.” He sighs dramatically. (CCA claims to have “no knowledge” of gates going unmanned at Winn.)

“It’s messed up,” the prisoner says.

“Man, it’s so fucked up it’s pitiful,” Jefferson replies. “The first thing the warden asked me [was] what would boost morale around here. The first two words out of my mouth: pay raise.” He takes a gulp of coffee from his travel mug.

“They do need to give y’all a pay raise,” the prisoner says.

It’s a story, in other words, of contemporary America—not just of private prisons (although it is an indictment of the growth of for-private incarceration), but also of the frustrations associated with the military-like occupation of U.S. streets (with an understanding of what that means for both the occupiers and the occupied).

The second article appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times, on the uneven recovery in Las Vegas, the epicenter of the housing crisis. The story is very different, about middle-class people who couldn’t be more different from inmates and prison guards, who are suffering from being underwater on their mortgages and struggling to negotiate a sale to avoid foreclosure.

But I was struck by two similarities—of people imprisoned in their homes (because they can’t get out from under their high mortgage payments) and of the violence (real or perceived) of their once-prosperous housing developments. Consider the story of Michael Hutchings who, with his wife and their children, still lives in their 10-year-old dream home.

A Marine veteran, Mr. Hutchings is now a block captain for the neighborhood association near Sunrise Mountain, 10 miles east of the Strip. Like many residents of the scattered American cities where violent crime is rising, he got so concerned that he installed iron gates and 12 security cameras to watch over his 1-year-old son, Maxim, and 3-year-old daughter, Natalia, as they play. When he takes them to the park, he goes armed.

The inmates and guards of the Winn Correctional Center and the Las Vegas homeowners who still have not experienced a recovery from the crash of 2007-08 are, in their different ways, prisoners of the American Dream.

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