THE BLOG

California Prisoners Starve Themselves to Show Us the Emaciation of Our National Character

07/29/2013 02:48 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

It is a sad time in America. Wherever we look, we see apathy where vigilance is needed, acquiescence where an alert and engaged citizenry is the last best hope for this nation to remain even remotely true to the principles articulated in her Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

We see villains and charlatans enthroned, and worst of all we see heroes vilified. We see the government and a willing media malign and denigrate heroic and couragous whistleblowers, who shine the vital light of truth into the darkness of our corrupted national soul. And now, we see the least powerful among us -- the least of our brothers as the Bible teaches -- those warehoused and denigrated in our nation's gulag system of industrialized mass incarceration standing up for themselves and, indeed, for the rest of us.

They more than anyone else in this weary land -- despite the injustice and bleak cynicism of their incarceration, seem to have somehow retained -- more than you and me -- a conviction to see the better angels in our nature win out over the lesser. It is they who, by starving themselves, intend to show us the emaciation of our national character. And it is they who send a message that not even a corrupt government and compliant media can silence -- that voluntary starvation is a fate better than that provided them by the grotesque calculus that has led this nation, in one of its darkest hours, to put profit -- political and economic -- ahead of people, of the American people themselves.

As Eugene Debs taught us, "while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Today, we must poignantly modify that refrain, "while there is a soul in prison who would sooner take his life than cave to the harrowing oppression of a predatory system, I am a participant in that system with my silence and with my next meal eaten as a free man."

It is time for the State of California to recognize the deep validity and extraordinary courage of those who are putting this issue where it belongs, at the top of our national discourse. It is indeed a day for California to find a place on the side of the angels and not look back from a future time when it missed a chance to move to the right side of history. I send today my deepest respect and love to those striking in this extraordinary demonstration. And I send my wishes to the people of California to find the compassion in their hearts to recognize the heroism of their fellow incarcerated citizens.

Eugene Jarecki is a filmmaker whose recent documentary, The House I Live In, is about America's War on Drugs and mass incarceration.