Monday, December 02, 2013

Prison, dentists, and the least among us

By Frank Moraes

The worst thing about society is our tendency to want to see justice done. The problem with this is that the universe is unjust and our society is even more so. I have heard a number of supposed feminists gloat about the idea of a rapist going to prison and being raped himself. Even apart from that not being an example of justice, the fact is that rapists who go to prison are far more likely to be rapists there than they are to be the victims of rape. That's the way things work in our "justice" system.

Our prisons exist to meed out retribution, not justice. Right now, there is a continuing over-crowding and healthcare crisis going on in California prisons. But the question is how did this come to pass? The people wanted to get "tough on crime," but they didn't want to pay for it. Because people in jail just don't matter. Addicts are left to detox in great pain in prison with nothing but a couple of Advil every four hours and a private cell if they are lucky. Others are allowed to die because their healthcare needs are not taken seriously. As a society, we just don't care about these people. They are "bad" even though most would be better defined as simply "unlucky."

An amusing story regarding this comes to us from Sweden. A 51-year old prisoner at the Ostragard facility was at the end of a one month sentence for an undisclosed offense. He was having a problem with what appears to have been an abscessed tooth. That's no joking matter. It can kill. The prisoner said, "My whole face was swollen. I just couldn't stand it anymore." So he broke out of jail. Then he made his way to the nearest dentist and had the tooth removed.

After the procedure was completed, he called the prison and had them pick him up. The authorities decided to increase his sentence by just the one day that he was gone. He's since been released. He joked, "Now I only have to pay the dentist bill." That's a great story and I'm glad it all worked out. But it gets at a very important point about how we treat prisoners and other marginalized people. In his case, it was clearly more important to keep him locked up than to take care of his needs. He was a product not a human being.

There are many people in my life—Good people who I love!—who are much too caught up in seeing justice done. And certainly, I'm not immune. I think we should try to create some justice in our society. But there are great limits. Mostly what we get is the appearance of justice applied to people who have lived lives that are the result of a deeply unjust society. I know this is the case of the Swedish man. First, he was in jail for a month. In general, only the poor and weak go to jail and that short term must indicate that he didn't do much. Second, he got his tooth pulled—not saved; and he's worried about how he will pay for it.

In our society, justice is something that is applied to the poor. It is rarely something done for the poor. In a world where that's what passes for justice, we would be better off with less justice.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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