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This book is a guide to a land that most readers will never visitthe world of U.S. prisons and jails. Like any travel book, it profiles the people that live in this land, outlines their customs, history, geography and language and lists the many dangers that lurk. It also provides key facts about the local currency, food and health care.
Readers may ask, Why would anyone want to visit this forbidding land, even in a book? After all, we're never going there. Why should we want to know what really goes on in America's prisons? Why should we care about the massive growth of the U.S. penal system over the past quarter century? Why should we worry about the racial inequalities? Why do we need to be told about the abuses? Why should we bother about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people kept behind bars, about the thousands of men subjected to rape, about women abused and harassed, about those left in solitary confinement for months and years on end with virtually no human contact? What has all this got to do with us?
I offer three answers. First, this book is not in fact about some remote foreign country that has nothing to do with us. It is about the United States, the global superpower. For those of us who live here, if we believe that we are all, in a deep sense, one nation and one family, then how can we ignore the plight of so many of our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our neighbors, our fellow citizens?
President George W. Bush acknowledged this in his State of the Union Address on January 20, 2004. Asking Congress for $300 million to help prisoners who had served their sentences reintegrate into society, the President said, "America is the land of the second chance and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."
Bush's words showed that prisons and the plight of prisoners are climbing higher on the nation's agenda. Unfortunately, as this book shows, America too often is not the land of the second chance for those behind bars, and when the gates open, there is no path ahead.
Second, try as we might, we Americans cannot separate ourselves from the world of jails and prisons. Ten million people cycle through our jails every year. The abuses they endure, the diseases they contract, the traumas they suffer inevitably come back to haunt the rest of society. There is no Iron Curtain separating them from us. They are us.
Third, as members of an old and proud democracy, respect for human rights is a central and vital part of who we are. We champion human rights all around the world. It's one of the most important American values. Yet, increasingly, other people do not take us seriously. We are seen as self-righteous and hypocritical. We criticize others but not ourselves.
Each spring, the State Department issues a report on the state of human rights in every nation on the globe. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote these words in the introduction to the report issued in March 2003 (U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2002. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Washington. March 31, 2003):
We gain little by ignoring human rights abuses or flinching from reporting them. ... But in truth, no country is exempt from scrutiny, and all countries benefit from constant striving to identify their weaknesses and improve their performance in this less-than-perfect world.
The report covered 196 countries, but it left out onethe United States of America.
This book holds up a mirror for us to examine one aspect of our nation. It does not always make for comfortable viewing. The face staring back at us is not the perfect, unblemished image we would all wish to see. But it is better to confront the truth without flinching than to behave like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, who concealed his ugliness behind a false veneer of physical perfection. We must acknowledge our imperfections.
As the Scripture teaches us, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Gospel of St. John, 8:32).
Alan Elsner, Washington, D.C., January 2004