Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 25, 2011

Carolina On My–Mind If I Leave Now?

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A week ago, Thursday was my first day out of the slammer in Marshall, NC. Okay, so I was only in for one day. We can hardly call that “hard time”. But it was not easy, either.

The fact is, I did the minimal time for my idiotic June 28 DWI because money is tight these days, and community service would have cost more. Plus arranging it here in IL would have been a hassle.

Yet despite the concerned look on the faces of all my white, middle-class friends and family before the trip, I was not scared or ashamed of going to jail.

Maybe it’s all those movies and tv shows that have stigmatized and stylized prison. I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen –in ministry visits to Stateville Prison (home of Joliet Jake Blues) and on the inside at the oldest, smallest working county jail in the nation (really, it’s being converted to a museum next year, as the new one opens up)– jail is just a holding tank for bored, poor, emotionally wounded, unskilled juvenile delinquents who have had the good (or bad) luck of living past age eighteen.

“He who neglects to drink of the spring of experience is apt to die of thirst in the desert of ignorance.” -Ling Po

Oh, and did I mention addicted? Because a drug’s sensory but artificial “experience” –so they can temporarily transcend their unhappiness with their actual experience in life –is typically what put many of these lost boys behind bars in the first place.

I would not be the first to claim that the so-called “war on drugs” is actually a war on the poor, perpetuated for the political or monetary gain of others. But now I’ve seen it firsthand– and interestingly,without the racial undertones that whites like me often have to get past when criminality or drug culture is discussed. For every one of the twenty seven prisoners I was locked up with was white. And I didn’t take a poll, but I’d be shocked if more than two of them went to college. It’s no accident that Markin Luther King Jr. was moving beyond racial politics toward advocacy for the poor by the time he was killed. He started seeing that even racism itself is rooted in a deeper economic reality.

Oh, speaking of polls and statisics, here’s an interesting one:

  • The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. At year-end 2009 it was 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population.

Think that ain’t the case at least partly by design? Prisons and security are big business nowadays, in case you had not noticed. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Some may be inclined –as I often am– to invoke the old “nature vs. nurture” question at this point regarding our nation’s now 2.3 million prisoners (or 1% of all adults, if you’re keeping score…). Were they (oops… we…) born bad, did they choose badly, or was something bad thrust upon them? (Sorry to corrupt your favorite quote, Mr. Lincoln.) But the deeper I get into this subject– and the less “academic” it becomes –the more I come to believe that the essential question we need answers for is not analytical but practical. Neither nature nor nurture matters in the face of the much more daunting question: “Now what?”

What do we do with our misguided “yutes” (thanks, Cousin Vinny) when the adults have let them down too many times to count? When vices are the only option left after “victory” has moved to the suburbs, or been sold off by an equally poor and hopeless parent to buy more drugs? I literally heard stories from some of the guys I was in jail with that they started exploring drinking prior to age six. Yeah, you heard me. Six.

I’m sorry to be so melodramatic. But the fact is, talking to so many “lost boys” (be they eighteen or fifty eight) breaks my heart every time.

Maybe it’s guilt, because I have probably squandered dozens of opportunities that most of these true “losers” never got in the first place. One small consolation: it’s certainly harder to feel sorry for myself when I meet people whose past wounds and present problems so far outweigh my own.

I wrote down plenty of other details while I was in there. And I may dig up that journal on another day. But for today, it’s enough to say: let us pray…


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