Perhaps it was seeing Les Miserables in the theatre last week or the endless stream of documentaries that I consume my time watching (of which I highly recommend “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward”, on Netflix), but today I started thinking about crime and the ridiculously high rate of incarceration in this great country of ours. It seems a heavy irony that the country with the highest rate of incarceration (just under 1% of the population) is often referred to as “The Freest Country on Earth”.
Here are the facts:
- The U.S.A.’s rate of incarceration is comparable to that of Pre – WW2 Soviet Union, under Stalin
- 1 in 22 black males are incarcerated (1 in 10 on probation)
- Less than 10% of prisoners committed violent crimes
- It costs on average $36,000 a year to keep someone in prison. It ranges from $14,000 year in Louisiana to $45,000 in Rhode Island, so if you’re gonna commit a crime, do it in Rhode Island
- The total annual cost of our prison system is around $75 billion
The cost to our society doesn’t stop there however. The chance of someone returning to a healthy, successful and happy life once out of prison are minimized by the marginalizing and stigmatizing imposed upon them by our government, society and fear. We have all done something potentially damaging or perhaps illegal in our life, the only difference is that we didn’t get caught or no negative repercussion came of it, but imagine for a moment, it did. Imagine that after what seemed like a reasonable number of cocktails, you are driving home from a party. As you’re driving along, abiding the speed limit, a young lady stumbles out of a bar, walks between two parked cars and into the street right in front of you. You hit and kill her, and because you had 4 drinks, instead of 3, you are now a felon. Would you not hope to one day be forgiven and permitted to return to the life you had before?
In a country, in which our laws seem to be drawn largely on the basis of Christian morality, where does forgiveness factor in?
Forgiveness requires compassion, empathy and understanding and when our hearts and minds are flooded with fear and insecurity, we become so focused on our own state of vulnerability that we have neither the courage nor the energy to think about others. It’s really no wonder that people are going through life so afraid and so self-centered. I’m always fascinated when I’m watching the evening news and story after story is about murders, robberies, rapes and various other forms of personal violation or theft. In fact, they will often tell of crimes in other states, rather than spend that time telling of something that perhaps will inspire or educate. Even in a liberal city like San Francisco, the “if it bleeds, it leads” practice seems alive and well, AND IT’S NOT JUST FOX!
In order to better understand fear, we have to understand how it really effects us physically and psychologically. I often speak of the “love/fear paradigm”, which simply says all emotions and behaviors stem from either love or fear. While this may sound overly simplistic or like Eastern philosophy, it is simply our emotional connection to the autonomic nervous system, which is divided into sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). When our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is engaged we are in a state of anxiety and stress and our body responds by shutting down functions that are unnecessary during periods of danger (even if the stress is purely psychological), including digestive and immune functions, which is why stress, more so than any other single factor, is responsible for obesity and illness. This is not to say that stress and the SNS doesn’t serve a purpose, aside from helping us to avoid physical danger, it is good for our health in controlled amounts and necessary for sex and exercise.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) on the other hand is when the body is in a state of calm and peace. In this state, body functions are most optimal and heart rate is slowed. This is the state that I connect with love, because there is no sense of danger, fear or insecurity and therefore we are vulnerable and open to receive and dispense loving energy into the world. Where as, when we are consumed with fear and insecurity we are more likely to react defensively, act selfishly and be motivated by power and control.
So, how does all of this relate back to crime and imprisonment? Well, the 2 greatest contributing factors to crime are poverty and inequality, which are highly stressful things to deal with. Combine stress and fear with the feelings of detachment from the rest of the world and you have the makings of anti-social and criminal behavior. Poverty is of course a form of economic inequality, but inequality can be felt by all people for all reasons. It is not the simple feeling that others have more than us, that is harmful (that is an inevitability), but rather that the system is designed to keep some down, while allowing others to grow and prosper. We imprison people for addiction to drugs (a treatable disorder) but give million dollar bonuses to those addicted to power and money. Equality is not about making everyone a millionaire, after all, excess money and possessions are not the true tenants of happiness, equality is about reminding people they are significant and that their life has worth.
Less fear and greater altruism is what we need in order to stop our dysfunction as a society. People do not seek to destroy or upset the balance of something that they feel a part of. While we can do a lot as individuals to help create a more altruistic world, it is vital that our government create a system that represents those values as well. The health of a nation needs to come before the profits of a corporation. People should not be dying because they can’t afford access to health care or medicine and people should not be sleeping on the streets, while buildings set vacant for years.
I believe Jimi Hendrix said it best that “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace”.