Kerik Now Sees Issues with American Prison System

In an interview with Today Show host Matt Lauer, ex-New York Police Chief Bernard Kerik said that America‘s prison system is broken.

“It’s okay  to punish individuals for doing wrong,” he said, “but it’s not okay destroy them for doing something wrong,” he said. As he talked, he gave Matt Lauer a nickel to hold.  Asking Matt to take note of the weight of the nickel, Kerik said that young men are being locked up for having five grams of cocaine”…an amount of cocaine that has the weight of a nickel.  ( “That’s insane.”

I n his first interview since his release from prison where he served time for tax evasion and lying to federal authorities, Kerik spoke with TODAY’s Matt Lauer about lessons learned. He said the plunge from police chief to prisoner allowed him to see numerous examples of why imposing mandatory minimum sentences doesn’t work. Instead of discouraging criminal behavior, it sets up inmates for failure, he said.

“The system is supposed to help them, not destroy them,” he said.

What Kerik is saying isn’t new, but I wonder if because a white man, a former law enforcement officer who admits he “threw people in jail and threw away the key,” more people will listen.

The issue of mass incarceration was brilliantly brought to light in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc, conducted a series of hearings in several states recently to hear about the problem and its collateral consequences, but due to the criminalization and objectification of  those who are incarcerated, which tend to disproportionately be young black men, few people, especially those in positions to help do something about it, listen.

Mandatory minimum sentencing, the “war on drugs,” and the “southern strategy” have all contributed to the huge numbers of people incarcerated today.  The privatization of prisons is also a huge factor in the vast numbers of people being thrown into jail. The object or purpose of the justice system, it seems, is not to “correct” but to control people and make a profit while doing it. In that respect, modern day prisons are little different than old-style plantations.  It is a new form of slavery, inmates and their families say.

Kerik was adamant in his new perspective gained from having been locked up. “If the American people and members of Congress saw what I saw, there would be anger, there would be outrage, and there would be change, because nobody would stand for it,” he said in the interview.

Prison and the need for prison reform is not a favorite subject for Americans.  The “tough on crime”  and “law and order” mantras that are a part of American political  discourse are responsible for the willingness of people to look away from the serious problems that have come with mass incarceration.  The fact that one in three African-American males are in prison is no issue for Americans who have been infected and affected by the criminalization of black males. The prevalent feeling seems to be that those who commit crimes lose their rights, including the right to be treated with respect and dignity.

Nobody really seems to care or be concerned about the fact that America imprisons more people than any of the other modern nations in the world. The conditions inside prisons is leading the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference to call the issue one of human rights violations, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as justification and citing violations of the same.

Kerik said that it is impossible for a young man to be in a prison for 10 years for having five grams of cocaine and come out, ready to be integrated into society. Prison doesn’t prepare inmates for re-entry and society makes it difficult if not impossible for them to survive once they are released.

Had he not been thrown into prison, Kerik said, his perspective would never have changed.

It’s not a new thing in America that, until an issue affects white people is really isn’t an issue.  The “war on drugs” was okay and needed as long as everyone knew that it was “those people” who did drugs and therefore needed to be locked up. With the explosion, however, of prescription drug abuse, and the large numbers of white people being adversely affected by it, the conversation began to shift. Drug addiction began to be talked of as an “illness.”

With Kerik’s interview, coupled with Alexander’s book and the findings of the testimonies gathered by the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc., perhaps more people will look at the issue of mass incarceration, and work to change not only it, but the collateral consequences it has caused and continues to cause.

America cannot run all over the world trying to address human rights violations without addressing its own shortcomings.  America’s justice system has wreaked havoc on society, not improved it. Destroying the lives of people who make mistakes is not a good thing, not on any level. Black people have been saying that for a while; maybe now that Kerik is saying it, someone will begin to listen.

A candid observation …


On Forgiveness

Some years ago, I wrote a book entitled, Forgive WHO?  The book dealt with the difficulty of forgiving the people who have hurt us most, based on the directives by God to do so – not just once, but over and over. It was and is a dastardly “ask,” frankly, and yet God demands it. At the end of the day, we help ourselves when we forgive those who have ripped our very souls to shreds. Holding onto the anger and hurt at having been done wrong does nothing good for us. The need to be “right” seems to, be physically, emotionally and spiritually damaging.

So it is with interest that I have been watching the Paula Deen debacle. She has apologized…and is asking forgiveness from those whom she offended.  The ball has been thrown into the court of the offended. What they do with it will determine their souls’ lives, not Paula’s.

I am offended by the “n” word; I do not for a moment believe that many white people have used it in public to refer to African-Americans because that word was a big part of American history. It was so much a part of our history that black people called themselves the “n” word, and continue to do so today. It is absolutely maddening to me to hear it used by anyone; kids saying to me to lighten up because it doesn’t mean anything makes me even madder. It is a horrible word and it came from a horrible place of hatred, arrogance and a false sense of superiority of one group over another.

So, I don’t really believe Paula or anyone who says he or she has “never” used that word at some point in their lives.

Some have said that Paula is not sincere in her apology; she is “sorry” only because she was found out, but isn’t that the case with most of us? When we do wrong, we hope we will get away with it. If we get caught, aren’t most of us first “sorry” because we got caught, and only after that “sorry” that we may have offended someone?  So if that’s the case with Paula, she’s not all that out of the norm. And if she’s sorry because she is, as Today Show host Matt Lauer suggested, “bleeding financially, that’s understandable too.

But at the end of the day, Paula apologized, and that ought to be enough. For God-fearing, Christ– following people, none of whom are perfect, her apology ought to be enough. We ought to be able to forgive her because …she made a mistake. We all do. We ought to be willing to forgive her because …God demands that we do.

The “n” word is a horrible word; I wish it would go away. Worse, I wish it had never come into being, with all of the negative attachments it has. Nobody had the right to cast black people into such a despicable place, and brand them as less than human. But it was done…and the bleeding from that would has not stopped. We keep pretending that racism is gone, or that the tentacles that racism spawned have disappeared. They have not. The old thoughts, words and attitudes linger; they are like pus that will not stop bubbling beneath our wounds.

Paula Deen is not a bad lady. She is a product of how she grew up, as we all are. It would be good to get this pesky word completely erased from our history and from our present-day, but it is not likely to disappear soon. For what it’s worth, Paula Deen, I forgive you. It’s easier for me if I do. There’s too much work to do to stay stuck on what you said in a deposition. I forgive you and I believe you’re sorry.

Time to move on.

A candid observation …