A new memorial celebrating the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King is scheduled to open in Washington D.C.. The memorial features numerous quotes from Dr. King under four headings that include Justice, Love, Democracy, and Hope.
Since Dr. King believed such concepts were inalienable, applicable to all of mankind, I've thought about how such noble sentiments apply to the 2.3 million people struggling through America's prison system.
With regard to hope, our prison system seems exquisitely designed to extinguish it. Indeed, those who climb through prison sentences in America have come to accept the "you've got nothin' comin'" mantra. It's a phrase that every prisoner hears repeatedly. Regardless of how hard a prisoner works to reconcile, the system does not offer hope to redeem oneself or for the prisoner to atone in a measurable way.
With regard to democracy, the prison system marginalizes those serving time inside. Prisoners have no voice with regard to their elected representatives. Indeed, the prison system violates the basic human rights that are central to democracy, including freedom of speech and freedom to assemble. Rather than democracy, those who live within America's prison system live as close to communism as possible. Every prisoner serves the interests of the institution, with each being given according to his needs. It's a Marxist paradise.
The prison system discourages love. It may publish platitudes about the importance of family and community ties. But then it imposes rules that block or limit each prisoner's access to telephone, visits, and correspondence. It's nearly impossible to nurture loving relationships under such conditions, though restrictions harmonize with the tacit plans of preparing offenders for reentry -- back into the prison system upon release.
The concept of justice is what seems most abstract from those in prison. Those behind the system seem more intent on preserving the institution rather than considering what justice means. It is a system that has but one measurement of justice: the turning of calendar pages. Rather than a judicial system encouraging prisoners to work toward earning freedom, it is a system that demands its ounce of flesh. For that reason, recidivism remains high, perpetuating the cycle of failure.
I applaud the new memorial in Washington D.C. honoring Dr. King. Yet, we -- as a nation -- still have a long way to go before we can say that we are living his noble dream.
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